Traditional Medicines – Natural Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Environmentally Friendly
There’s a lot to be said for alternative and traditional medicines, but like their mainstream counterparts, they can be accompanied by a major cost to the environment.
Much of the issue relating to mainstream medicines has to do with their disposal and the impact they have on the environment when they leave the body.
The problem with some alternative and traditional medicines is more related to how they are sourced.
For thousands of years humanity has been reaping the bounty of nature to help cure what ails us. For the most part, this is done sustainably, but in some instances, not so.
For example, I was reading today about the caterpillar fungus; the result of a parasitic relationship between the Ophiocordyceps sinensis fungus and the larva of the ghost moth.
This fungus kills and mummifies the caterpillar and the fungus then grows from it. The fungus is sought by practitioners of Tibetan, Chinese and traditional Folk medicine – so much so, it’s currently selling for around $20,000 a pound.
Consequently, gathering of caterpillar fungus has gone into overdrive and their occurrence is decreasing. What implications this has on local ecosystems is hard to say; but most organisms have an important role to play and the relatively sudden absence of an organism can have serious knock-on effects; some of which may not seem connected (see the Butterfly Effect).
One effect that is known is on soil. According to an article on the issue on ChinaDialogue, digging up one fungus disturbs at least thirty square centimetres of earth. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but soil in the regions where the most prized fungus is found is fragile and many are dug up each year.
Other traditional medicines may be made from rare plants or other creatures.
One of the many plants to become endangered in part due to its medicinal properties is liquorice root; which may become extinct in some Chinese provinces due to over-harvesting.
Elephant ivory can be an ingredient in some preparations and while there has been a ban on ivory products in many countries; this has only served to push up the price of it on the black market.
Once the realm of individuals or ragtag bands of poachers, the black market ivory trade is now being run by organised crime syndicates and in some cases, members of the military in some countries. I read a particularly disturbing story today of nearly 2 dozen elephants rounded up by helicopter (suspected to be military) and shot. The only thing taken from the elephants was the ivory. To add to the tragedy, some of the animals were babies and had no ivory.
Alternative and traditional medicine plays a very important role in human health; but by buying natural preparations, it’s not a guarantee the medicine is environmentally friendly.
When considering these medicines, learn what they are made of and do a little research on the ingredients to ensure you’re not supporting a creature or plant being pushed closer to the edge of extinction.
With regard to animals, regardless of their status, there is also the concern about their treatment. For instance, some Asian black bears are kept in captivity for the purposes of harvesting their bile, an ingredient in some traditional medicines. Living for up to 12 years in tiny cages while bile drips from a hole in the bears’ abdomens and gall bladders, or even worse, “milked” from them twice daily, the conditions these bears endure is absolutely heartbreaking. I’ve seen the photos and I wish I hadn’t.
In relation to plants, a rare plant listed as an ingredient may not be such an issue if it isn’t harvested from the wild; but determining provenance may be difficult.
For researching the status of plants, a very handy resource is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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