Medicinal and aromatic plants
Medicinal and aromatic plants constitute a major segment of the flora, which provides raw materials for use in the pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and drug industries. The indigenous systems of medicines, developed in India for centuries, make use of many medicinal herbs. These systems include Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, and many other indigenous practices. More than 9,000 native plants have established and recorded curative properties and about 1500 species are known for their aroma and flavour.
In one of the studies by the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 80 per cent of the population of developing countries relies on traditional plant based medicines for their health requirements. Even in many of the modern medicines, the basic composition is derived from medicinal plants and these have become acceptable medicines for many reasons that include easy availability, least side effects, low prices, environmental friendliness and lasting curative property.
India and China are the two major producing countries, having 40 per cent of the global biodiversity and availability of rare species. These are well known as the home of medicinal and aromatic crops that constitute a segment of the flora, and provide raw materials to the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, fragrance, flavour etc. industries. The aromatic plants are the important economical source of a number of well established and important drugs; in addition, they are the source of some chemical intermediates needed for the production of a number of drugs.
India has been considered a treasure house of valuable medicinal and aromatic plant species. The Indian System of Medicine uses over 1,100 medicinal plants and most of them are collected from forests regularly, and over 60 species among them are particularly in demands. On account of the fact that derivatives of medicinal and aromatic plants have no side effects and deal curatively, the demand for these plants is on the increase in both developing and developed countries. As a result, the trade of medicinal plants is increasing fast.
From the trade data available, it is clear that the global market for medicinal plants has always been large and has been on increase in the recent past. In the report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature, it is pointed out that, the total import in 1980 of “vegetable materials used in pharmacy” by the European Economic Community was 80,738 tons. India was the largest supplier with 10.05 tons of plants and 14 tons of vegetable alkaloid and their derivatives. India, Brazil and China are the largest exporters of medicinal plants. Trade of medicinal plants from India is estimated to be worth Rs. 550 crore.
Cosmetics and aromatherapy products are two important areas where Indian medicinal plants and their extracts like essential oils can contribute globally. Medicinal and aromatic plants have a high market potential with the world demand for herbal products growing of the rate of seven per cent per annum. Aromatic plants provide products with are extensively used as spices, flavouring agents and in perfumes and medicine. In addition, they also provide raw materials for the production of many important industrial chemicals.
The spices and essential oil industry traditionally was only a cottage industry in India. Since 1947 a number of industrial organizations have been established for large scale processing and production of spices, oleoresins, essential oils, their pure constituents and perfumes. The essential oils which are being produced in India are oils of ajwain, cedar wood, celery seed, citronella, eucalyptus, lemon grass, mentha, spearmints, Palmarosa, patchouli, turpentine and votive.
Some of these products are the raw materials for the production of important industrial chemical like β-ionone from lemongrass oil for the production of vitamin A. India produces turpentine oil in the order of 10,000 to 35,000 tons annually and this oil is used for the production of a number of chemicals. The essential oils are used in every-day human-life in various ways and their consumption is rapidly increasing. A few of the common uses to which essential oils and their derivatives are put to, are in the manufacture of soaps, cosmetics, pharmaceutical preparation, confectionary, aerated waters, disinfectants, detergents, incenses, etc.
India was at one time famous for the manufacture and distillation of high quality perfumes and scents. According to an estimate, 1000 different aromatic plants out of a total of 1500 varieties used in perfumery throughout the world are found in India. The extraction of essential oils is carried throughout India, but in an unorganized way. This industry needs to be built up on scientific lines if all the raw materials available or which can be produced, are to be exploited for the economic benefit of the country.
The economic importance of both these groups of medicinal and aromatic plant can be gauged from the fact than 25 years ago vegetable drugs worth million of rupees were used to be exported from India. This trade dwindled later because of exporting unstandardized and adulterated material. The trade can be revived if steps are taken to produce and export material of standard quality.
On other hand, a considerable quantity of crude drugs is imported from foreign countries for the use of Pharmaceutical industry, therefore, will bring great economic advantage to the country. These plants are now being utilized in the practice of medicine in this country and are also exported to foreign countries.
The aromatic plants provide the raw material for the production of flavours, condiments, herbal cosmetics, perfumery, scented soaps, hair oils, aerated water, and etc. demand for these herbs is increasing progressively with increase in number of star hotels and multinationals establishing consumer oriented cosmetics, biscuits and pharmaceutical units.
Currently, most of these herbs are grown in large quantities and marketed by France, U.K., Canada, Turkey and U.S.A. It is estimated that Indian Consumption alone of these herbs is approximately 200 tons per annum, and only about 60 tones are produced indigenously. Bulk of these herbs is used for culinary purposes and about 12 tones are consumed for medicinal and cosmetic preparations. The annual exports of the derivatives from these plants are to the tune of Rs. 600-700 million.
World trade in medicinal plants is increasing very fast. One of the interesting features of this trade is that the direction of trade is from developing countries to the developed countries. That has a positive income transfer effect. China and India are the two leading countries in the trade sector. During the past decade, total trade has increased from US $ 52.8 million to US $ 68.7 million, recording a growth rate of 3.56 per cent per annum. In spite of this, one cannot confidently say that we have reached even the fragment of the potential of trade in medicinal plants.