The multimillion-pound boom 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 jeopardising the health of millions of people in developing countries. And yet the herbal medicines industry has been accused of doing nothing about it.
Most people around the globe use herbal medicine for everyday healthcare, with as many as 80 per cent relying on it in some countries. But two-thirds of the 50,000 medicinal plants in use are still harvested from the wild, and research to be published later in 2004 suggests that between 4000 and 10,000 of them may now be endangered.
A study by Alan Hamilton, a plant specialist from the global environment network WWF, will point out that the market for herbal remedies in North America and Europe has been expanding by about 10 per cent a year for the last decade and the world market is now thought to be worth at least �11 billion. Many of the plants are harvested by poor communities in India and China whose livelihoods will suffer if the plants die out.
'It's an extremely serious problem,' Hamilton told New Scientist. He is a member of the World Conservation Union's Medicinal Plants Specialist Group, and has drawn his estimates of the number of species at risk from expert analyses of the IUCN's Red List of threatened plants. His study is due to be published in Biodiversity and Conservation.
Wow. I predict dramatic scenes in Newtown and Glebe as the news spreads.