At the start of this millennium, of the 252 pharmaceutical drugs considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be basic and essential, 11% were exclusively of flowering plant origin. Drugs considered as important in developed countries contain at least 119 molecules derived chemically from approximately 90 plant species, with 74% of those having been discovered as a result of the study of plants used in traditional medicine.
Once it’s ours, you can’t have it
As the patents on existing drugs run out, pharmaceutical companies are searching the natural world for molecules they can extract and patent as new drugs. This kind of bioprospecting, means that plants are being taken, often along with associated indigenous science and knowledge, from their natural environment so that intellectual property can be assigned to a corporation for the purpose of profit, often with little or no compensation going to the communities where the plants originated. This includes communities in developing countries where the majority of the population continue to rely on herbal medicines for primary care.
Perhaps the most worrying part of this is that once Big Pharma has isolated a plant molecule and created a ‘new’ drug it can patent it. This can lead to a loss of availability of that plant to those who rely on that plant as a medicine as it now ‘owned’ by a third party. More than bioprospecting, this practice should be more properly regarded as biopiracy. An example of this has been the exploitation of Hoodia in southern Africa, which is now on the EU’s watch list of herbs that might be subjected to e-commerce bans.
As plants are being increasingly commoditised, many plant species are becoming endangered as they’re wild harvested unsustainably, with inadequate regard for their preservation or any associated environmental damage.
South Africa has been heavily targeted with the threat of new laws being brought in to favour those bioprospecting on the continent to the detriment of traditional medicine systems.
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Alliance for Natural Health October 2017