Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Have Biodiversity Will Flourish...?

I promised an article on my thoughts on our herbal industry and research. Here it is.

Every conferences and seminars I attend, I am repeatedly reminded of our rich biodiversity, that Malaysia is one of the 12 megabiodiverse countries, and that we are richer than the US, Canada and Europe put together in terms of biodiversity. Of course, I can’t agree more. But owning something and the ability to put it to good use, knowing exactly what we own (the intrinsic of it), and fully understanding its potential are completely different things.

My frequently asked questions in my talks are:
1. Do we know what is in our forest?
2. Have we taken audit of all our plants, microbes, mushrooms, and the abundant marine organisms, as well as soil samples?
3. How much of bioprospecting do we carry out?
4. Are we capable of safeguarding our biodiversity with our regulations?
5. How much of perseverance do we have in taking our research beyond simple screening?
6. How much do we collaborate with companies in synthesising compounds, doing clinical research, etc?

I leave you to answer these questions. I for one, am always reluctant to try any herbal concoction for simple reasons that it is not fully tested, not much research has gone into producing it, and not highly regulated. I don’t mind taking a drug, because its side effects are clearly known. A known devil is always better than an unknown angel! Nature is not always safe. Different concoction, different dosages, and different combination of herbs can give entirely different results. Sometimes, it can even be detrimental to one’s health. Traditional knowledge should be used as guidance but if we want to add value and be able to penetrate global market, then research is the way to go. Research will enhance the knowledge of our forefathers and bring the products to greater heights.

Local herbal companies should go beyond just adding herbal concoction to tea and coffee, and into gelatine capsules. This is what our grandparents did. We should move on to be able to capture the global market.

Talk about herbs, and we can’t skip our infamous Tongkat Ali. Where is it compared to Ginseng? And is it only good for vitality and as an aphrodisiac? How about its anti-malarial and anti-cancer properties? How far research in this area has gone?

We are sitting on a treasure trove. Just imagine what the industrial countries would have done if they had what we have. In fact, all big biotech players are not even rich in biodiversity.

Perhaps, being a country rich in biodiversity, we should have a separate institute that carries out all research related to our biodiversity – from conservation, bioprospecting, screening, clinical trials, synthesising and the whole works.

I attended a product launch of a health supplement from bitter guard. Extensive research has been carried out in India and they are still conducting more research in order for the product to achieve a drug status with FDA. When will we be there?

We recently organized a seminar with Sarawak Biodiversity Centre and had good deliberations on herbal research, commercialization, and the notion that biotech is a threat to biodiversity. It was a good seminar.

I can never forget a comment given by an environmental activist during another seminar. He said he always wondered why the government emphasises so much on biotechnology, when it just should be biodiversity. He said we don’t need biotechnology. All we should do is take care of our biodiversity. I must say I was shocked with this comment. It is mind boggling how biodiversity can translate into food, feed, fuel, fiber, drugs, and other compounds without technology. Biotechnology in fact, offers tools that enable us to utilise biodiversity in a sustainable manner. We don’t have to chop or uproot our plants to produce drugs. Tissue culture, chemical synthesis, and GM technology enables us to produce drugs and other compounds in a healthier, more efficient and sustainable manner. Biotechnology also offers tools for conservation.

Back to our herbal industry and research, I am waiting to switch from the mainstream medicines to herbal medicines and hope one day I will be convinced with its safety, amount of research and regulations.
- Mahaletchumy Arujanan

No comments: