Holistic Medicine, Not Global Warming, Linked to Herbal Extinctions

Published March 1, 2004

A $20 billion worldwide market for “natural” herbal medicines is threatening up to 10,000 plants with extinction, according to a report published January 4 by New Scientist magazine.

“The multimillion-pound boom [the British pound equals roughly one dollar] in herbal medicine is threatening to wipe out up to a fifth of the plant species on which it depends, wrecking their natural habitats and jeopardizing the health of millions of people in developing countries,” reported the New Scientist.

“Given the scale of the threat, this is alarming,” said Martin Harper of the conservation group Plantlife International.

The New Scientist article is based on a study scheduled for publication later this year by the World Wildlife Federation. WWF reports a 10 percent increase in worldwide herbal remedy use for each and every year of the past decade.

“It’s an extremely serious problem,” said the WWF’s Alan Hamilton, lead author of the soon-to-be published study.

“With demand and commercialization growing fast, the future of the wild plants which have helped most of humanity for centuries is now more uncertain than it has ever been,” said Harper.

Herbal medicines are often purchased by environmentalists who spurn over-the-counter or prescription drugs, because they are chemicals, and modern technology generally. The idea that the habits of anti-modern environmentalists might be causing widespread extinctions struck some observers as ironic.

Just as ironically, corporations and tropical rainforest farmers–two groups frequently criticized by radical environmentalists–may provide the solution to the extinctions feared by the New Scientist. With demand for herbal plant species apparently exceeding the supplies found in nature, farmers and corporations are poised to act according to free-market incentives and begin actively cultivating the endangered species.

“Some herbal medicine species are very rare, and due to increasing demand in alternative treatment they are getting closer to extinction,” notes the NatureProducts.net Web site, an online store for herbal remedies. “Our answer to the threat of extinction of rare species is to domesticate them and contract grow them …”

That’s a solution many have proposed to help address the threatened extinction of animals in the wild.

“Apparently, the threat stems from the fact that these herbal remedies exist in a ‘tragedy of the commons,'” explained Jane Shaw, a senior associate with the Bozeman, Montana-based Property & Environment Research Center (PERC). “People are simply taking the plants wherever they grow and not replenishing them. Farming is indeed a solution because the owners of the crops will make sure the plants continue to thrive. Some form of private ownership is the way to save these and other species, including animals, from extinction.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

More information on private solutions to species protection and other environment issues can be found on the Web site of the Property & Environment Research Center at http://www.perc.org.