Sustainable use of medicinal plants key to phytomedicine industry

Source: Ghana | Mikael Bremfi | Commercial Manager, Centre for Plant Medicine Research
Date: 13th-april-2017 Time:  9:33:30 am

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There was a net loss of 129 million hectares of forests globally, between 1990 and 2015.This is equivalent to the size of South Africa.Low income countries recorded the highest rate of loss according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Resource Assessment in 2015.

In Africa, a net annual loss of 2.8 million hectares of forests was recorded between 2010 and 2015.

Ghana is not immune to this phenomenon as it recorded a loss of 2.5 million hectares of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010 according to the 2015 Ghana Millennium Development Goals report by the National Development Planning Commission.

Among the major causes of this phenomenon is the unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plants for production of herbal based medicaments and beverages, logging for timber, mining, etc.

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development implies the utilization of resources to meet present day needs in a manner that does not prevent future generations from meeting their own needs.

It thus follows that utilization of medicinal plants today should not compromise the ability of future generations to also benefit from these plant resources.

The Problem

There has been a bourgeoning demand for herbal based beverages known as “bitters” within the last fifteen years with its consequential expansion in the number of producers. Not to talk of the myriad herbal medicine companies in the country, the problem arises when plants are utilized in a manner that does not allow for regeneration and hence, sustainability.

A 2010 research (van Andel., et al., Ghana’s herbal market) indicates that an estimated 951 tons of crude medicinal plant parts valued at US$ 7.8 million were sold on Ghana’s herbal market.

Also, about 90% of herbal product manufacturers depend on the natural forests for their raw material without cultivating them. Moreover, about 70% of the parts used involve either the stem; stem bark or root, which is more harmful to the plant, with the remaining 30% being leaves.

The most unsustainable is the situation where the whole plant including the root is harvested which automatically results in killing the plant. Again the research indicated that roots constituted 20% (highest) of the 209 species of plant parts sold on the Ghanaian market.

In as much as these plant resources provide economic, health and social benefits, what efforts are being made to ensure their sustainability for the survival of the phytomedicine industry?

From the facts listed above, there is clearly a concern bordering on sustainability which players in the industry must tackle for the survival of the industry.


To avert indiscriminate and unprofessional use of medicinal plants, the writer suggests the following:

Sustainable Harvesting

According to the World Health Organization, sustainability should be the guiding principle in harvesting of plant parts. That is, harvesting must be done in a manner that plants can regenerate afterwards. One simple technique is that harvesters should avoid a  complete debarking of a plant, a practice known as “ring barking”, and rather remove bark in long vertical strips in small sections leaving most sections intact, and also leave some inner part of the bark  to protect it.

A medicinal plant showing ring barking, an unsustainable technique.

Practitioners must also invest in research to find out whether other parts of a plant contain active ingredients so that the whole plant is not killed by harvesting the roots. They must try as much as possible to leave the roots intact if other parts of the plant could be used.

Medicinal Farming with Government Involvement

The best and most sustainable way of utilizing medicinal plants is by cultivation, according to the World Health Organization’s guidelines on conservation.

Unfortunately in Ghana, this has received little attention from manufacturers as they depend heavily on the forests for raw materials. Whilst manufacturers of herbal based beverages and medicaments must cultivate medicinal plants to avoid overdependence on forests, private entities are encouraged to embark on commercial cultivation of medicinal plants as a sure way of sustaining the industry. Government through the Ministries of Agriculture and Health as well as the Forestry Commission should also directly get involved in medicinal plant farming as exemplified by Sri Lanka since 1986. With the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Sri Lankan Government through its sector ministry has been directly involved in setting up nurseries to cultivate medicinal plants since 1986, and Ghana can adopt same.

Moreover, the government can offer financial assistance to support efforts made by the Centre for Plant Medicine Research in Mampong Akwapem, to cultivate plants such as Cryptolepis sanguinolenta, Croton membranaceous, Mondia whitie and Khaya senegalensis, which are in critical need at the moment.

Another avenue to deploy government’s intervention is through the Youth Employment Agency’s Youth in Agriculture Module and the Forestry Commission. I implore these agencies to give priority to medicinal plant farming to cultivate the above-mentioned plant species and others which are in critical supply.

The Centre for Plant Medicine Research cultivates medicinal plants, especially endangered species.

Regulation and Control of Forest Resources

Lastly, one must require a permit before accessing a forest to harvest medicinal plant in commercial quantities. The challenge however is enforcement.

 Outright ban on endangered plant species should be enforced whilst for others; the regulation should consider critically, the part of the plant used and its ability to regenerate.

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