One suggested way to prevent the growing demand for herbal medicines from
endangering herb species is the commercial cultivation of those species
which are in high demand specifically for the purpose of selling them
on the world market.
Though some experts on the subject of herbal medicines claim that
cultivated herbs may not have the same properties as herbs grown in
the wild, there is good reason to believe that most herbs can
be successfully cultivated. This Canadian site provides information regarding
the successful cultivation of Ginseng. This information can be view as
highly important, as American Ginseng is now listed in CITES as threatened,
and has been harvested a great deal in the States for the purpose of export
to the East.
As this site points out, the American government currently
pays subsidies to certain farmers in order to discourage them from planting
certain crops. This is done because if too many small farmers were to compete
with each other they may all find themselves required to charge prices so low
for their produce that the agricultural industry will no longer be sustainable.
If some of these farmers could be encouraged to cultivate herbs instead, the
American agricultural industry would become more diverse, and less subsidies
would be required to keep it sustainable.
Unfortunately, as pointed out by Michael T. Murray, in his publication,
The Healing Power of Herbs, stringent FDA regulations placed on
herbal medicines in this country discourage this type of cultivation
from taking place. While in Germany, for example, herbs can be sold as
medicines if they can be "proved to be safe and effective," in the United
States, getting FDA approval of a plant-based drug "typically takes 10 to
18 years at a total cost of roughly $230 million dollars."
One specific example sited by Murray concerns extracts of an herb called
Ginkgo biloba. While in Germany and France, this herb shows a
combined annual sales total of over $500 million dollars as a treatment
for cerebral and peripheral vascular insufficiency, in the United States
it is sold as a "food supplement" and is considerably less successful
Another major reason for the limited practice of herb cultivation so far
appears to be simply the lack of specific knowledge as to their
medicinal properties. This is actually quite surprising, as about
a quarter of all perscription drugs used in the US today are either taken
directly from plants, or are based on chemically modified versions of
substances taken directly from plants. Furthermore, over half of all
perscription medicines are modeled on natural compounds. These include drugs
varied as the well known painkillers Codeine and Morphine, a treatment for
malaria known as Quinine and a heart stimulant known as Digitalis.
In the last decade, it has become recognized that traditional uses of herbs
often relate to actual medicinal properties held by those herbs. The
practice of "ethnopharmacognosy" involves the interviewing of indigenous
peoples regarding their traditional herbal medicines, and then
targeting the plants they claim have medicinal properties for scientific
research. Shaman Pharmaceuticals
is one company that specializes in this practice.
Unfortunately, this addresses the problem of endangered herb species only
very indirectly. As Murray points out, pharmacognosy generally involves
the isolation of particular "active constituents" from plants. As such,
if a company like Shaman Pharmaceuticals discovers that a certain
herb can be used as a medicine, it is more likely to attempt to isolate
the compounds within that herb which have medicinal properties and then
try to replicate them in a lab then to actually promote cultivation of the
herb. Murray also tells us that it has been "demonstrated with many plants
that the whole plant or crude extract is much more effective than isolated
constituents," a belief commonly adhered to by practitioners of herbal
In order to protect endangered herb species, then, it would be necessary
to convince the government or the agricultural industry to promote the
cultivation of herbs themselves (rather than synthetic drugs based on them),
despite the fact that the FDA specifically prohibits companies which
market herbs in this country from making any claims regarding their
products' medicinal properties. This appears to be the main barrier to the
practice of herb cultivation. The industry is simply not as yet recognized
as important enough to warrant this type of large scale economic endeavor.