TOPICS: Plant wealth and economy

Man’s survival depends on the availability of food from plant sources. Plant extracts are also extensively used as medicines, insecticides, poisons or raw material. The medicinal and aromatic plants provide raw material for the pharmaceutical, food, spices, liquor and beverages, and cosmetic industries.

The contribution of Ayurvedic medicine to the study of medicinal plants is now recognised universally. The oldest text of Ayurveda is no longer available in its original form, but the development of the system of medicine in the East under the dynamic leadership of Charaka and Sushruta and their monumental encyclopaedic work, Samohitas, is still replete with references of drugs that are still in practice. The group of drugs which have been mentioned includes anti-fertility and spermicidal agents along with immunological and antihistaminic compounds.

Similarly, medicinal plants have been identified as anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and having therapeutic value against schizophrenia. The study of plants having anti-rheumatic properties to cure diabetes and cancer are also underway. We know the value of cinchona for malaria and quinine for cardiovascular arrhythmia, and muscle relaxants like curare for psychiatric problems. In China, herbal medicines are mostly used at basic healthcare level.

Drug industry is important for any country not only because it ensures better healthcare through production of a range of medicines, but also because of its enormous contribution to national economy. In a search for new drugs and cheaper alternatives, plants are the natural choice. Importance of plant resources in medical science can be judged from the findings of a survey conducted in the United States, which showed that as much as 47 per cent of some 30 million new prescriptions by physicians contained one or more active herbal ingredients.

Fortunately, Nepal is blessed with a rich and varied flora spread from the alpine Himalayan region to the tropical zone in the southern, eastern and western parts of the country. This flora, if properly exploited, can provide cheap and better alternative to synthetic medicine. An extensive screening and testing programme of Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha medicines can go a long way in fulfilling our medicinal needs.

Proper utilisation of natural resources would help expedite Nepal’s economic development too. Forests or plant wealth can support sizable industries based on herbal resources. Skill and capital are the two prerequisites for building up a self-perpetuating economic growth. Especially, in today’s era of knowledge economy, intellectual capital is a precious asset for any country. Nepal, therefore, needs to produce more experts in the field, provide them with opportunities and reward them for their contribution. Technology cannot flourish without science. In order to harness the in-house talent, the country must reverse the present pattern of brain drain.

Prof Dhoubhadel teaches at TU