Written by: Dr. Farzad Najafi, Institute of Medicinal Plants and Drugs Research Institute of Shahid Beheshti University
Presently, once again the use of medicinal and aromatic plants has grown increasingly due to factors such as, human beings’ tendency towards nature and organic products, side effects of the synthetic materials, and the discovery of new drugs from natural compounds which have complex chemical structures and cannot be synthesized. The tendency to and regards for natural products have lead to the rise in the use of medicinal and aromatic plants and other natural compounds in different food, drug, health and cosmetic industries and products. This has called for a great market for these types of plants to the extent that according to the European Union it has had approximately 20 percent growth in the year.
The rise in the manufacturing of these products with natural origin has lead to the dire need for the basic materials of these plants in the world. Despite the fact that 90 percent of this requirement is still provided by natural resources, these resources are no longer able to supply the daily increase need of food and pharmaceutical industries which need large quantities, high quality standards, reasonable prices and appropriate time. Also, the majority of natural resources and habitat of these plants have either been destroyed or are in danger of destruction.
Therefore, the cultivation of medicinal plants and their arrival to the system of agricultural production with the possibility of production of basic materials in mass quantities according to standards required by industries, is of great significance. The areas where medicinal plants are cultivated in different countries is ever increasing, which yet again signifies the development of this industry. It is such that in China in 1990 the area in which medicinal plants were cultivated was 153000 hectares whereas in 2001 this number was up to 827000 hectares, the same in the USA in 1990 it was 200000 hectares and in 2001 it was 622000 hectares, in Canada in 1990, 40000 hectares and in 2001, 347000 hectares. In European Union the area under cultivation of medicinal plants is approximately 100000 hectares from which 4700 hectares are under organic cultivation and about 21000 producers of medicinal plants are working there.
In the field of medicinal plants, Iran has unique potentials that have not been attended to nor have they been put to good use. Varieties of medicinal species with valuable compounds, medicinal plants with economic values such as saffron and Damask rose, climate variation for different medicinal species, manpower and reasonable energy resources are among Iran’s important potentials for the development of cultivation and industries concerning medicinal plants. There are several challenges for medicinal plants cultivation and industry development. However, by knowing exactly what these challenges are and trying to obviate them, we can proceed with the development of this industry in our country. Below you will find some of these challenges regarding medicinal plants cultivation:
◆ Lack of experts in higher and professional level
◆ Lack of technical knowledge of medicinal plants cultivation and production
◆ Scarcity of standard seeds and sapling
◆ Scarcity of harvest and processing machinery of medicinal plants
◆ Farmers’ absence of risk-taking for new products
◆ Poor support of the government and especially Agricultural Jihad
◆ High cost of standard medicinal plants production
◆ unstable market and lack of specific purchase market
◆ Farmers’ lack of fidelity to production contracts
◆ Fluctuation of input prices and costs in Iran which makes it difficult to establish long-term contracts
◆ Fluctuation of transportation prices
◆ Limited needs of domestic industries for basic materials
◆ Lack of standards for production of medicinal plants and weak management
◆ Lack of stability in policy-making in the field of medicinal plants
◆ Lack of strong international relations and weak foreign marketing
A look at these challenges reveals that there has never been a cohesive plan to make use of these domestic potential and to eliminate the challenges and despite the suitable movements in the recent years that have taken place in our country to support and develop this industry, these supports will not have the desired effect so long as they do not follow specific strategies. The only way that Iranian products, whether in the form of raw materials or processed form, can enter the foreign and international market is to standardize these products according to global needs. In case the Iranian producers are unable to produce according to global needs, they will be eliminated from the international markets rivalry. The production of standard basic material is the first step and underlying movements in medicinal plants and spices. The necessary steps are as follows:
◆ Development of Good Agricultural and Collection Practices for Medicinal Plants (GACP)
Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) for medicinal and aromatic plants was developed by World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003, so that those countries producing medicinal plants would develop this standard and administer it according to their county’s climate conditions. The first step in production is to develop this standard in the country, due to the fact that this standard is of great importance to the international buyers and is in the precondition of purchasers, also it assists the domestic industries to reach healthier and higher qualities for medicinal plant products. The next step in this process is for the universities and research institutes to generate technical knowledge.
◆ Technical Knowledge of Agropackage
Technical knowledge of planting, growing and harvesting as well as primal processing of important industrial plants especially those particular to Iran such as saffron, caraway, Damask rose, Tarragon,…
◆ Finding Areas With Potential for Production of Plant Species
◆ Generating Basic Materials Suitable for Multiplication Which Contain Highly Effective and Functional Materials
It is important to use modified varieties with highly effective and functional materials in the production process. Therefore, the basic conditions of the modified seeds and their orientation examination, and in the second step, distribution of these varieties throughout the country and establishing companies for seed production and reproduction organs of these plants, are other important steps.
◆ Designing and Manufacturing Machines Suitable for Harvest and Primal Processing
Mechanization of medicinal plant farms in the field of cultivation and harvest machines or post-harvest processing machines, is of great importance, this is to decrease production costs and gain high quality products and compete powerfully in the market.
◆ Training Producers
The most important actors of medicinal plant industry is the farmers and producers. With respect to the fact that medicinal plants are mostly recognized among the new plants in the agricultural systems, the producers do not have any technical knowledge in the field of cultivation and production of such plants also accepting the risk of production is very difficult for them. Therefore, the conveyance of technical knowledge from higher levels to downstream must be done through education, training and the making of educational farms.
◆ Economic Potentials of Native Medicinal Plants
Plenty of wild plant species of our country contain valuable medicinal compounds. However, in order for them to enter the production wheel and to use them in the industry, it is required to invest more in the research sections and to promote these plants. Below some of the necessary activities are mentioned:
◆ Breeding and domestication of plants ( ecology, modification, agropackage, machinery, economic evaluation, processing)
◆ Stable exploitation (development and the use of GACP global standard)
◆ Designing of the harvest and processing machinery for these species
◆ Making provision for purchase market
◆ Establishment of accredited laboratories for quality control (quality of effective material, pollutions, toxic residue)
One of the main issues in the field of medicinal plants production is assurance that the materials produced are healthy and of good quality. However, one of our country’s problems is lack of accredited laboratories to control the products according to international standards, which makes it difficult to approve the quality of these products.
The following are some suggestions to eliminate the challenges:
◆ Optimum agriculture production
◆ Finding areas with potential for specific medicinal plant production
◆ Supporting of companies producing globally standardized basic materials
◆ Making agro industry farms for medicinal plants in the country
◆ Supporting of the manufacturing and designing of medicinal plant cultivation machines and if required, importing of machines for industrial and commercial cultivation of medicinal plants to a large extent
◆ Supporting of joint venture projects between foreign and domestic companies in industrial cultivation and medicinal plant industry (joint venture and providing facilities for investment of these companies)
◆ Supporting of the establishment of accredited laboratories for quality control of medicinal plants (control of effective materials, heavy metals, bacterial and fungal pollutions, toxic residues). These laboratories, with the help of private sectors, should act in accordance with global standards and their laboratory results must be in compliance with those of international laboratories, labs such as Europhins. The attendance of international companies can also be supported.
◆ Supporting and observing the occupational plans of medicinal plants in villages, educational and training assistance and conveyance of simple technological production methods to villages, stable exploitation of natural resources, employment and creating wealth, prevention of immigration
◆ Supporting of organic medicinal plant production in the country, also supporting the production of organic pharmaceutical products, essential oils, teas, health and beauty products.
◆ Supporting the establishment of companies producing sapling, seeds and standard reproduction materials. These companies can specialize in production and multiplication of standard species. Also, in case there are markets for these companies, they are able to work on modification and production of valuable seeds of medicinal species or this can be done with the cooperation of research centers as well as our universities.
◆ Establishment of medicinal plants data banks in the country to connect different sections and to be informed of the country’s needs and potentials (data banks of producers, agro industries, pharmaceutical manufacturers, producers of reproduction materials…)
Education and Research
Education and research are of great importance in the field of medicinal plants. It is yet vital to research in order to develop technical knowledge and convey it from universities to downstream, this will then lead to the economic production of high quality medicinal plants.
◆ To make new university majors in the fields of production and processing of medicinal plants, and to graduate specialists of high technical knowledge in the field of cultivation and processing of medicinal plants, quality control and related industries
◆ To make short-term training courses for managers, experts in agricultural productions sections and farmers
◆ To increase the knowledge of medicinal plant production companies, exporters, processing factories, their managers and personnel in accordance with global standards. To rank these companies and producers from their technical knowledge and required standards point of view, also to determine their activities and support these companies based on their rankings and points received.
◆ To support the production and formulation of simple herbal medicines which are daily-consumed by people, in order to raise the production of medicinal plants and later to invest in the sections for production of special drugs which requires complex technical knowledge
◆ To supervise the pharmaceutical companies in order to make sure they observe all the required standards and to oblige them to use standard basic materials rather than any basic materials
◆ To support the common projects between industry and university, to use university laboratory equipment and the production facilities of pharmaceutical companies in the form of joint venture between the governmental and private sectors in research institutes related to processing and not in the form of ex-gratia payment. The government must also be able to withdraw sufficient benefits from these investments.
Export and Foreign commerce
◆ To be able to compete with foreign exporters and producers, and make productions and employment, once the foreign exchange rate is stable
◆ To support joint venture investment projects between foreign and domestic companies in the field of industrial cultivation and medicinal plant industry, and to provide facilities for the investment of these companies
◆ To carefully control export activities especially the export of endangered plant species, also quality control and to issue health certificates which are now done superficially and recklessly
◆ To make export facilities for medicinal plant companies which produce and export medicinal plants according to the required standards
◆ To provide facilities to participate in world’s international exhibitions and events for drugs and medicines especially those held in European countries and to provide them with information related to these companies through Iran’s trade delegations in embassies
◆ To enhance the cooperation between Trade Promotion Organization of Iran and Chamber of Commerce of the main countries, for production, processing and marketing of medicinal plants