Plants are becoming an increasingly profi table investment. Europe, the United States, Japan, China, Brazil, and Mexico have been swept by a huge demand for herbs, which has led to an enormous increase in profi ts. In China, sales of traditional medicines more than doubled between 1998 and 2003, while India’s booming export trade in medicinal plants rose almost threefold during the 1990s.
In Germany, more than 80 percent of all physicians regularly use herbal products. In the United States, herbs and natural supplements were a $12 billion business in 1998, double the total in 1994. Britain, like everywhere else, is being swept along on the herb revival boom. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies were not doing so well fi nancially, and a lot of companies have swallowed up rivals in a bid to survive. In 1990, the pharmaceutical market profi t was 15 percent; by 1994 it had fallen to 9 percent.
In the West, this drop in revenue has halted research programs, as the money to fund them simply hasn’t been available. Consequently, scientists were asked to be more creative! One idea they have developed is to focus on the older generation and the problems of aging. With the World Health Organization predicting that the incidence of cancer will double or triple as the number of older people increases, this age group would seem a likely target.
Another trend, already apparent in some areas of alternative medicine, is the move to bypass the doctor and sell more products directly to the public, either over the counter or through mail order. Pharmaceutical companies have begun “copying” herbs, and this trend should grow in the years to come. Several pharmaceutical companies are investigating methods for standardizing plant-based medicines. In the past, only singlemolecule botanicals could be identifi ed.
Without proper identifi cation, researchers could not prove the safety and effi cacy of other plant agents, because there were batch-to-batch inconsistencies. Previously, pharmaceutical companies would not submit applications for herbal medicines because companies could not receive patents for them. However, recently a pharmaceutical company has developed the fi rst pharmaceutical versions of multimolecule herbal medicines by standardizing the active molecules and their interactions.
Meanwhile, other so-called herbal concoctions are now being sold by other pharmaceutical companies. A qualifi ed herbal practitioner would not see these developments as herbs and certainly they must be treated as drugs, licensed as such, and their side effects given due heed. Cuts have been made to research programs that study single herbs and try to isolate their “magic bullet” components.
For years, pharmaceutical companies threw away the best bits of the plant while the plants themselves 27 looking for that magic bullet. This problem was refl ected in a lesson learned in 1995: fl a vonoids are a component of many plants, but these compounds had been regularly discarded for twenty years