Issues in Medicinal Plants Trade
KV Krishnamurthy

The dramatic increase in exports of medicinal plants in the past decade testifies to the worldwide interest in these products as well as in traditional health systems. Records over the last 10 years have shown that Indian exports of medicinal plants have trebled. But, as these plants are predominantly of wild origin, hundreds of species are now threatened with extinction because of over-harvesting, destructive collection techniques, and conversion of habitats to crop-based agriculture. Open access to medicinal plants in the wild is perhaps one of the main reasons for the current unsustainable levels of harvesting.

India's traditional medical systems are part of a time-honoured and time-tested culture that still intrigues people today. The Ayurvedic texts provide specifications with regard to their formulations - among these, plant features, the precise identity of the plant, region/micro habitat from where it is to be obtained, acceptable substitutes, as well as the general standards for multi-ingredients and multi processing. However, the contemporary situation hardly allows for any form of supervision that can ensure that these specifications are met.

The city dweller typically confronts these medicinal plants as raw drugs; the plant or the plant part is referred to by a vernacular name or a Sanskrit name- that 'this' drug is from 'this' plant eg. Saariva refers to Hemidesmus indicus. The problem encountered is that the drug 'Saariva' sold in the market, as per the botanists, belong to at least four different plant species: Cryptolepis buchanani, Hemidesmus indicus, Ichnocarpus frutescens and Decalepis hamiltonii. The consumer is thus never sure what exactly he is buying. Similarly our studies on 'Vidaari', another popular raw drug used to prepare Ayurvedic formulations, has shown that plant parts obtained from four different species are sold under the name 'Vidaari',- they are Pueraria tuberosa, Cycas circinalis, Ipomoea mauritiana and Adenia hondala. It is not that the Ayurvedic literature forbids substitutes and adulterants but their regulations are not often wide enough for one to cover all that is currently available in the market. Studies show that Pashanabheda has eleven candidates, Brahmi has two and Shankapushpi has four. It is cautionary to note here that the Ayurvedic literature, though extensive, provides detailed information only on a limited number of species.

In fact, Ayurvedic sophistication most spectacularly comes to the fore in the number of ingredients it uses and the various types of processing simultaneously involved. Unlike pharmaceutical industries engaged in the production of modern medicines, the traditional medicine production units use a much larger number of plant based raw drugs for preparation of an amazingly large number of formulations/products. A typical medium or large scale Traditional Medicine(TM) pharmacy of Kerala for example, uses almost 400 to 600 different plant drugs as raw materials. The raw drugs used in herbal formulations are obtained from different plant forms. An interesting analysis of this data, based on the life forms of the plant sources of these raw drugs reveals that contrary to the general perception that most of these plants belong to the category of herbs or shrubs traditionally known as 'jari-booties', in many regions of the country the proportion of trees is as high as 26% (refer Fig.). Most of the raw drugs are used in dried form while some are in fresh or green form. These raw materials consist of a variety of plant parts ranging from leaves, fruits, flowers, seeds, gumresins to roots, rhizomes, stems, bark and whole plants. An analysis of plant species in use by such TM pharmacies as raw drugs shows that more than 70% of these involve destructive harvesting where the plant parts in use range from whole plants to stems, roots and bark.

Trade in medicinal plants is highly complex as it involves different individuals at different levels in the marketing channel. A typical chain of such transactions starts with the collection of these plant materials in the wild, through tribals and villagers, including women and children, followed by a local level consolidation of these collections by a network of local traders/ handlers, and finally, delivery at “road-head” centers. The material collected at such road-head centers then flows down to the local and regional wholesale markets, the latter generally located in bigger towns/ cities. Such chains of transactions in the medicinal plants' trade involve a very large number of collectors, processors and handlers, commission agents/ middlemen and carriers. As said, not only are there problems of identification but these are further compounded by confusion regarding stakeholders and the market. There are far too many players right from field collectors to local wholesalercontractor/ agent-end user or major wholesaler/retailer with substantial trade transactions occurring between traders and between trading centers. The interplay of middlemen in trade act as impenetrable shields, blocking the vital communication between the primary collectors of the medicinal plants and their consuming centers. The contractors/ agents often procure the collections at a very low price or following the barter system, exchanging these raw drugs for consumer items. The limited access to market and dependence on intermediaries has a direct effect on the prices. Government support for and supervision of medicinal plant development are often weak. In some countries, public sector agencies exercise monopoly control over the purchasing and processing of such plants and other forest products, fostering inefficiencies, thwarting commercial development, and preventing fair pricing for collectors. But even when they maintain such controls, exportingnations generally reap low returns, since royalty payments and permit requirements are usually not enforced.

In addition to the above mentioned complexities other pertinent issues that are of concern are -

  • The lack of traceability of the path of the raw drug back to it source.
  • Owing to the lack of information on the market size and identification of all market sites in India (major and minor trade centers) one is unable to gauge the market size or even chart out the market sites within the country for any particular item.
  • Insufficient data on the peak and lean raw drug collection periods.
  • Absence of comparative studies of price structure and lack of time series data on prices. Surveys have indicated that the price of a raw drug depends on the quality and the extent of adulteration; the relationship between demand and supply also determine the day to day variations in price. The status and reputation of the trader and buyer, mode of payment (cash/credit) and quantity ordered also dictate the price of the species. There are also problems related to fixing marginal cost pricing of the medicinal herb and absence of a mechanism for determining the share of the primary collectors in the final revenue obtained from the finished products.
  • Ineffective regulatory body, ineffective regulation by the government in their crucial role in the prevention of illegal trade.

Lastly, with reference to the herbal industry, there is a lack of information on grading specifications, insufficient initiatives on value-addition studies, and finally a lack of standardization on broad quality parameters as each manufacturing company has its own quality standards. There is need to develop a mechanism to ensure that quality is maintained at the crucial supplier (wholesalers and retailers) level in large and small towns. Lack of standardization of different formulations extracted from plants also poses a problem as indigenous systems of medicine require multiingredients and multi-processing and it is a difficult task to monitor various formulations, each formulation having a number of ingredients.

In order to have an edge over other competitive countries in the herbal market there is thus a need to regularize our system of functioning and this can be achieved only by a critical examination of these issues by the policy makers in order to arrive at plausible solutions to the current scenario.