HERBAL MEDICINE or Botanical Medicine is the utilization of herbs (plants) for their therapeutic or medicinal value. It is among one of the oldest forms of healthcare known to humans. The Holy Quran is one of the best reference books describing the importance of medicinal plants in different Surahs as in Al-Bakra, Sura Al-Isra, Al-Rehman, Al-Inaam, and Al-Mominoon. In the Holy Quaran Allah says, “And within the land are neighbouring plots and gardens of grapevines and crops and palm trees, (growing) several from a root or otherwise, watered with one water; but We make some of them exceed others in (quality of) fruit. Indeed in that are signs for a people who reason (Sura Ar-Ra`d, verse 4). Our Holy Prophet (PBUH) used and recommended medicinal plants for treatment of various ailments.
Due to several side effects associated with synthetic antibiotics, the use of natural products extracted and prepared from medicinal plants has gained interest in both developing as well as developed countries of the world. Moreover, the use of botanical raw materials in the production of medicines is usually much cheaper than using alternative chemical substances. Therefore, the trade of medicinal plants has increased rapidly in recent decades. According to an estimate, during 2002, world trade of medicinal plants was nearly 1034 million US$. Nearly 70,000 plant species were used in medicines worldwide. The largest global markets for medicinal plants exist in China, Germany, France, Japan, Italy, UK and USA. In the United States, the trade of medicinal plants is observed with 10% increase annually and more people are attracting towards herbal medicines.
Pakistan has a diverse climatic condition supporting the growth of nearly 6000 higher plant species of which nearly 700 plant species are reported for their medicinal value and the number is increasing constantly due to current interest of local researchers in natural products. Nearly 300 medicinal plants are traded locally and internationally. Pakistan obtains more than 80 per cent of its medicaments from higher plants.
According to FAO Corporate Document Repository, the actual supply/demand of herbs and medicinal plants is in the range of 20,000 tons per annum. Another research report published by Dr. Z.K. Shinwari (2010), 22 species of medicinal plants worth Rs 14.733 million were traded in 1990 while in 2002, this value rose to more than Rs.122 million, an eight and a half times increase. In 1990, 95 plant species were consumed worth Rs.36 million while in 2002, medicinal plants worth Rs. 218 million were consumed with a six-fold increase.
Pakistan is enriched in herbal resources. The trade of medicinal plants is increasing rapidly and that is good news for country economy. However, the current digits are far low than the trade of medicinal plants in other countries like our neighbors India and China. The condition is such that during 2008-2009 Pakistan imported just spices of $33.29 million from India.
Majority of the medicinal plants is found in less developed and far flung parts of the country like Gilgit Baltistan, FATA and parts of Baluchistan, KPK and Kashmir. Therefore, their proper utilization could not only contribute to poverty alleviation in these areas but also could contribute to overall economic development of country.
Bulks of the wild medicinal plants are collected by children (47 per cent) and women (34 per cent) having no background of proper plant collection which have caused a rapid threat to some of the economically important medicinal plants. Moreover, the quality of the collected material is also reduced. Other common factors involved behind the rapid eradication of the valuable medicinal plants are over grazing and conversion of forest land into agriculture. Therefore, we are losing our these valuable herbal assets rapidly.
Now it is the time that government should start public awareness campaign about importance of medicinal plants in country economy. Special emphasis should be given on conservation of plant species in the form of herbal gardens and gene banks. According to a study, out of 709 endangered plant species of the world, nearly 64 species are endemic to Pakistan. The local people should be trained for proper collection, cultivation, processing and marketing of medicinal plants. The government should provide linkage of collectors with market and dealers not only at national level but also at international level.
The writer is Ph.D. Scholar, Quaid-i-Azam University. He can be reached at email@example.com