The vast majority of medicinal plants used within the Ayurvedic system of medicine are collected from the wild, a situation that has resulted in the over-exploitation of many botanical species in India.1 Faced with the potential loss of such important medicinal resources, India’s government has recently initiated various projects aimed at conserving medicinal plants, and some Ayurvedic companies have begun to increase their commitments to cultivation and to sustainable wild collection standards.
Approximately 70% of India’s population—estimated at over 1,173,000,000 people—uses plants for healthcare.2 A recent study commissioned by India’s National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB) and conducted by the Bangalore-based institution Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) has estimated that 177,000 metric tons of medicinal plants are used each year by India’s domestic herbal industry, that 86,000 metric tons are employed within rural Indian households, and that 56,500 metric tons are exported through international trade.
The high level of domestic use of Ayurvedic plants, coupled with increasing demand for exports, has resulted in rapidly dwindling natural supplies, said Muhammed Majeed, PhD, founder of the international company Sabinsa Corporation, which manufactures Ayurvedic herbal extracts and other ingredients (e-mail, May 7, 2010).
FRLHT has been coordinating rapid threat assessments of prioritized medicinal plants within certain states of India since 1995. According to D.K. Ved, director of FRLHT, 14 assessments have been conducted over the last 15 years in 17 Indian states, using the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List Categories and Criteria. So far, 359 prioritized species have been investigated through the various state-wide assessments, of which 335 (or 93%) have been assigned Red List status ranging from critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or near threatened (Ved D.K., e-mail, April 28-May 7, 2010).
Ved stressed, however, that these results do not mean that over 90% of all Ayurvedic plants in India are threatened. According to Ved, approximately 1,560 plant species are sources of plant drugs within the Ayurvedic medicine system, and many of those species that are taken from the wild are still abundantly available along roadsides, farm bunds, fallow lands, and waste lands.*
But rampant, unsustainable harvest from the wild indicates that many Ayurvedic medicinal plants could be—or could become—threatened. Although India’s government controls wild collection of medicinal plants through permits and other regulations, “corruption at the local level has a role in over-exploitation of some species,” said P.K. Davé, chief operating officer of the Ayurvedic company Nature’s Formulary (e-mail, June 1, 2010).
Further, wild collection is by far the most prevalent means of obtaining herbs in India. “A recent assessment undertaken by FRLHT has shown that almost 85% of botanical raw drugs used by India’s herbal industry, excluding well known spices, cereals, and vegetables, are obtained from the wild,” said Ved.
There are several reasons why India’s botanical industry has continued to rely upon wild collection.1 Chief among them is that the price of cultivated plants is typically far higher than the price of wild-collected plants. Additionally, farming expertise is generally lacking in India, so many of the country’s marginal farmers are unwilling to risk herb cultivation. Many medicinal plants also take several years to reach proper maturity for therapeutic use, which could force farmers to wait 4 to 10 years before seeing a return on their investment (J. Brinckmann, e-mail, May 28, 2010). Farmers would also need to have enough acreage for planning crop rotations over decades. These requirements simply cannot be met by most small farmers in India.
Ayurvedic companies Himalaya Drug Co. and Shree Dhootapapeshwar Ltd. reportedly source approximately 20% or less of their raw materials from contract farmers.1 Verdure Sciences, a company that manufactures botanical extracts in India for export sales, mostly from plants with strong roots in Ayurveda, claims to derive 35-40% of its herbal raw materials from cultivation (A. Patel, e-mail, May 28, 2010). Sabinsa procures around 40% of its botanical raw materials through cultivation efforts, and according to Dr. Majeed, the company is working to increase this percentage with each new growing season.
Dr. Majeed stated that cultivation has become increasingly necessary due to shortages of some wild herbs. “We have known about the growing scarcity of Indian herbs for the last few years,” he said. “It has become more and more apparent as time went on, and our business started showing struggles of this in the recent few years.”
Some currently endangered Indian medicinal plants, which Sabinsa is now attempting to cultivate, include Caesalpinia sappan (Fabaceae), Salacia reticulata (Celastraceae), Nardostachys jatamansi (Valerianaceae), and Taxus spp. (Taxaceae).
Other companies have indicated that they plan to rely more heavily on cultivation in the future as well. Verdure intends to rely on cultivation for 50% of its botanical materials by 2012. News reports state that Himalaya Drug Co. intends to enhance its cultivation of medicinal plants each year, with the goal of sourcing 70% of its materials through cultivation by 2015.1,3 In February 2010, Himalaya entered into an arrangement with one of its suppliers to set up a 75-acre nursery and to begin testing mass cultivation of some medicinal herbs.1
According to Dr. Majeed, cultivation is beneficial not just for ensuring availability but also for guaranteeing materials’ quality and eliminating adulteration. “Some Indian herbs can have relatively high levels of potential toxins unless you know how to guard against that, which we do,” he said.
Ajay Patel, president and CEO of Verdure Sciences, likewise noted that cultivation can help to ensure the safety and quality of raw materials. “A major concern from the Western world about Ayurvedic botanicals, much in part to California Proposition 65, is heavy metals,” he said (e-mail, May 28, 2010). “Many botanical manufacturers often did not test for these in wildcrafted herbs, assuming they would not have issues with impurities. With wildcrafted herbs you sometimes have a gap in your knowledge of where exactly a raw material came from. For example, with herbs wildcrafted and harvested from roadsides or suburban wetlands, the potential for contamination is high.”
But cultivation has its own challenges and limitations. According to Ved of FRLHT, increased cultivation is likely to have limited success in reducing over-collection of medicinal plants. “Increase in cultivation of medicinal plants can help in meeting the increasing demand of some of the botanical materials obtained from the herbs and shrubs. But keeping in view the fact that many of these plant entities are woody perennials, it may not be feasible to expect that such cultivations will significantly shift the sourcing of raw materials away from the wild sources,” said Ved.
Ved explained that these woody perennials are difficult to cultivate due to inadequate information regarding their domestication and reproductive biology, as well as to the long gestation period required before they become available for harvesting when raised on farm lands. Such Ayurvedic plants include Coscinium fenestratum (Menispermaceae), Salacia reticulata, and Decalepis hamiltonii (Apocynaceae).
“Such cultivation efforts may, however, assist the conservation of only a very limited number of India’s wild medicinal plant species,” Ved added.
Patel of Verdure pointed to other difficulties associated with cultivation: “You might think it’s easy to take some wildcrafted seeds and plant them in a farm field, but to do it the correct way is a bit more difficult. For example, the phytochemical yield can be higher on wildcrafted plants, which is due to their particular environment. The soil, microclimate, surrounding plants and ecology (even harvest methods) can have a great effect on phytochemistry. Having this knowledge and understanding the unique attributes of each species and variety is paramount in successful and long-term cultivation practices.”
On the other hand, Patel explained that paying attention to these details of cultivation can be particularly beneficial since companies can sometimes enhance the quality of manufactured products that come from successfully cultivated medicinal plants. For instance, he stated that Verdure has had great success in ensuring the potency and batch consistency of its Pomella® pomegranate (Punica granatum, Lythraceae) extract, due to its cultivation efforts.
In addition to cultivation efforts, Patel noted that it is important for companies to ensure that wildcrafted herbal materials are ethically and sustainably harvested. “Close relationships with harvesters and with governmental (as well as with non-governmental) organizations and strong communications networks on the raw materials side are key,” he said. “If we are close to the ground, we know about the supply issues that go beyond just market price and are able to take appropriate steps that could possibly include discontinuing a product, regardless of its market demand.”
Davé of Nature’s Formulary likewise noted the importance of pursuing both cultivation and sustainable wildcrafting practices. Nature’s Formulary is in the process of converting its entire product line to reliance upon cultivated organic or wildcrafted materials, and Davé explained that the company gives preference to family farms and tries to partner with suppliers who have a history of compliance with forest collection rules. “We believe that using collectors for wildcrafted herbs serves a purpose since it provides a means of livelihood, as a majority of the collectors are destitute or tribals living in forests,” he said.
Ayurvedic companies are not the only entities that have recently shown interest in protecting the supply of India’s medicinal plants.
“Recently there has been a spurt in the promotional activities relating to cultivation of medicinal plants, as well as their plantation in the forest areas to augment the medicinal plant resources of the country,” said Ved, adding that many of these efforts are being promoted by India’s NMPB.
For instance, a project to establish additional Medicinal Plant Conservation Areas (MPCAs) in various Indian states was initiated last year. MPCAs foster in-situ conservation of wild medicinal Indian plants; since 1993, they have been coordinated by FRLHT and implemented by state forest departments. There are currently 87 MPCAs throughout India, and new MPCAs are to be developed in the states of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and Chattisgarh.
Further, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, NMPB released guidance documents in 2009 on India-specific Good Field Collection Practices and Good Agricultural Practices for medicinal plants, for use by industry stakeholders to help ensure quality and sustainability of medicinal herbs.4,5
Additionally, the Karnataka Forest Department recently received financial assistance from NMPB for 4 new projects relating to conservation, identification, and research of medicinal plants.6 Another recently announced project will involve cultivating medicinal plants on idle land, including along the sides of the runway of Cochin International Airport in Kerala.7
As India’s Ayurvedic medicinal plant industry continues to grow and attract more international customers, the availability and threatened status of various medicinal plants is likely to be an area of increasing concern and discussion, as well as sustainability programs by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and members of private industry.
“The Indian government already recognizes that its share of the $65-70 billion world trade of herbs is miniscule,” said Davé. “As it strives to gain share of this, adequate supply will be essential. This can be achieved only through better management of existing species.”
- Chandrasekaran A. Ayurvedic drug makers struggle to promote herb cultivation: Farmers reluctant to take up farming of medicinal plants as they lack expertise and try to avoid taking risks. Mint. March 15, 2010. Available at: www.livemint.com/2010/03/15101637/Ayurvedic-drug-makers-struggle. html. Accessed April 15, 2010.
- Ved DK, Goraya GS. Demand and Supply of Medicinal Plants in India. Bangalore, India: Bishen Singh Mahendra Pal Singh, Dehra Dun & FRLHT. 2008.
- Himalaya Healthcare to cultivate endangered plants to develop new drugs. The Economic Times. April 15, 2010. Available at: http://economictimes. indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/healthcare/biotech/pharmaceuticals/Himalaya-Healthcare-to-cultivate-endangered-plants-to-develop-new-drugs/ articleshow/5811511.cms. Accessed April 15, 2010.
- National Medicinal Plants Board, World Health Organization Country Office for India. Guidelines on Good Field Collection Practices for Indian Medicinal Plants. New Delhi, India: Sun Offset; 2009.
- National Medicinal Plants Board, World Health Organization. Good Agricultural Practices for Medicinal Plants. New Delhi, India: Sun Offset; 2009.
- Vijay N. State forest dept gets Rs 90 lakh aid from NMPB for protection of medicinal plants. Pharmabiz.com. April 24, 2010. Available at: www. pharmabiz.com/article/detnews.asp?articleid=55121§ionid=&z=y. Accessed April 26, 2010.
- Cochin airport to wear a green look. New Indian Express. April 6, 2010. Available at: www.thefreelibrary.com/Cochin+airport+to+wear+a+green+look.a0223257197. Accessed April 12, 2010.
* Harvesting medicinal herbs along roadsides is generally considered poor collection practice since perpetual exposure to vehicular exhaust may have rendered the plant and its produce unsuitable for human consumption. [Ref: National Medicinal Plants Board, World Health Organization Country Office for India. Guidelines on Good Field Collection Practices for Indian Medicinal Plants. New Delhi, India: Sun Offset; 2009.]