New Study Addresses Urgency Of Conserving Lifesaving Medicinal Plants

October 15, 1997

BRONX, N.Y. -- The title states a worldwide dilemma: Medicinal Plants: Can Utilization and Conservation Coexist? The new book by Jennie Wood Sheldon, Michael J. Balick, and Sarah A. Laird, published by the Scientific Publications Department of The New York Botanical Garden, addresses one of the most compelling issues in preserving the world's biodiversity: As the demand for plant remedies soars, how can we protect the natural plant populations from loss of habitat, over-harvesting, and even extinction?

Twenty-five percent of all the modern-world pharmaceutical remedies come from plants, from medicine cabinet staples such as aspirin, quinine, and the antihypertensive reserpine, to paclitaxel, a compound derived from bark of the yew tree used in Taxol for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers. People of many cultures have long relied on plants for their medicinal value. Approximately 80% of the developing world relies on traditional medicines. Some 85% of traditional medicines of the developing world contain plants and their extracts.

But as the western world's dependence on medicinal plants grows, the danger looms that they will be destroyed through improper harvesting. "While we depend heavily on plants for both pharmacology and herbs, some of the species from the wild are harvested in a way that is resulting in the destruction of the natural populations," said co-author Dr. Michael J. Balick, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. "It is essential that greater attention be given to learning just how we can sustainably manage the wild harvest of these important species."

The book examines cases of numerous plant species valued in traditional and contemporary medicine and the ramifications of over-harvesting. Selected species include the rosy periwinkle, used to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease, and Pilocarpus, used in the treatment of glaucoma. The book also reviews current wild harvesting methods that are purported to be sustainable, but are actually destructive, guidelines for sustainable harvest that are often not adhered to, and efforts to grow certain plants in plantations to deflect demand from fragile wild populations.

Sheldon, Balick, and Laird offer numerous solutions. They discuss traditional harvesting patterns, herbal harvesting collectives, and progressive pharmaceutical research and development efforts that hold promise. They call for greater research on methods for producing medicines for human health from tropical forests that will conserve the natural plant resources. Each species has unique ecological, socioeconomic, health, and cultural associations that need to be understood in order to develop realistic regulations for collection to protect them from over-harvest.

Lead author Jennie Wood Sheldon, commenting on the balance between use and conservation, said: "Both herbal and pharmaceutical markets need to recognize the direct connection between human health and healthy plant communities -- in their research, harvesting techniques, and consumer outreach. In spite of the potentially ravaging effects of global markets, self-interest in human health may prove to be one of the most tangible and effective incentives for preserving rich and complex ecosystems."

The book also addresses the economic importance of the medicinal plants in developing countries. Sarah A. Laird, co-author, observed: "Medicinal plants can be linked to conservation in positive ways, as well, by providing affordable health care for local populations, and serving as the basis for economic activities which build upon biological and cultural diversity. The issue of sustainable management remains critical, however, both to the survival of important species, and the health care and economic activities based upon them."

Medicinal Plants: Can Utilization and Conservation Coexist?, by Jennie Wood Sheldon, Michael J. Balick, and Sarah A. Laird, ISBN 0-89327-406-2, 1997 (Paper), 104 pages, 12 photographs, $14.50 (plus postage and handling fee). Order No. AEB12. To order, call (718) 817-8721, fax (718) 817-8842, or e-mail scipubs@nybg.org.

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The New York Botanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden

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