Pakistan contributes $15.35 million — only 0.02 per cent of the aggregate — to the global trade volume of medicinal plants that surpasses $70 billion every year, the Food and Agriculture Organisation agency reports. According to the US National Center for Biotechnology Information, Pakistan’s northern areas are immersed with 650 species of therapeutic plants. This expanse, being the economic zone for exportable curative plants, could bring affluence of foreign exchange to the country. Restricted cultivation, absence of proper picking mechanism, limited research-based knowledge, raw collection methods and exposure to severe climatic conditions hinder the way forward.

The United States, Japan, China and the European Union are the biggest importers of medicinal plants. India’s annual export of medicinal plants to China has reached $14m. China and India together manage 75pc of global demand for medicinal plants and herbs. Pakistan preserves an exportable potential of medicinal herbs and botanical species.

What it requires is the formal certification of plant species and formulation of an exclusive export policy. Management of therapeutic plant economy could create employment opportunities for herbalists, research officers, farm managers, agriculturists and caretakers. Accordingly, the indigenous investors and exporters could start taking an interest. An initiative could start alleviating the poverty of the natives who heavily depend upon natural resources to earn their bread and butter.

Pakistan is stacked with more than 50 medicinal plants which are traditionally used to cure a wide range of neurological ailments such as anxiety, epilepsy, insomnia and Alzheimer

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40pc of modern medicines manufactured by pharmaceutical companies come from remedial plants. The economic significance of curative plants could be imagined from very this fact. Dr William Withering, in 1775, first prevented heart failure of a patient using a unique extract from Foxglove — a wild plant. All this proves there is a huge market for life-saving plants. This is how contemporary Medicinal Botany appeared on the canvas of medicines.

Pakistan chiefly exports two cash crops — cotton and rice. Only mangoes and citrus represent the export of fruits. The rest is unattended and undiscovered. We need to understand Pakistan’s economy of domestic and wild plants, which extends from the Himalayas to the Hindukush. The indigenous communities could be empowered by inducting them to locate, record, manage, harvest and market the unattended wealth of medicinal flora. If taken care of, the country could elevate its export of medicinal plants to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Demarcation of respective zones and certification of the species is the first step. Pakistan Agricultural Research Council could initiate the certification process for valuable therapeutic plants, herbs and organic ingredients. Under the umbrella of the Agricultural Linkages Programme (ALP), the research work could be carried out. Following the Chinese model of agriculture, the responsibility of the management of medicinal plants could be entrusted to the army. The establishment of army farms could serve the purpose for they have a better understanding of the forests, mountains and ecological zones.

Further, a hardheaded export policy is required to accomplish the task under consideration. Ministry of Health, Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan, Ministry of Agriculture, research institutions and the healthcare economists together could frame, test and implement an articulate policy to use these plants locally and export to pocket some revenues. Once the botanists unveil the full potential of the curative vegetation, the economists could lead the matter from the front.

Pakistan’s northern areas preserve a large variety of medicinal plants, which include but are not limited to Holy Basil, Calendula, Hyssop, Chamomile and Lavenders of various origins. Since primitive times, Egyptian civilisation, Indus Valley civilisation, China and Greece have been the centres of curing diseases using plants and herbs of medicinal importance.

Following the research work of Hippocrates and Aristotle, Theophrastus established the school of medicinal plants. The medieval Islamic era is characterised by the Muslim herbalists and botanists who cured ailments using remedial plants. Ibn Baytar, Ibn Juljul and Al Idrisi generously contributed to the plants of medicinal importance. Pakistan could take the intellectual legacy of these scientists to generate income and employment.

Pakistan is stacked with more than 50 medicinal plants which are traditionally used to cure a wide range of neurological ailments: anxiety, epilepsy, insomnia and Alzheimer. These specific herbs are scattered in various districts of Pakistan including Swat, Bahawalpur, Malakand, Gilgit and Sargodha. Similarly, these plants are effective to cure dermatological abnormalities too.

Quinine is vital to relieve malaria. Congo alone produces and manages 50pc of the world’s cinchona plantation. Quinine is extracted from the cinchona bark. India appears to be the biggest importer of cinchona bark from Congo. Pakistan is home to numerous medicinal plants. Not all curative plants are wild; a large variety of these plantations is man-grown. The government could sanction loans to augment the production of medicinal plants at apropos locations across provinces. These plants are ecologically immune therefore need less care than the cash crops.

The pervasive Covid-19 pandemic has marred time. Subject to research on medicinal plants, it is highly probable for man to find the treatment of the plague in a wild plant.

The writer is a socio-economic analyst. waheedmba@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 17th, 2022

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