Charles Dhewa Review Correspondent
Rising demand for wild foods and local herbs in most African informal markets demonstrates the desire for the public to return to natural remedies. In addition to food, all kinds of natural herbs and medicines are an integral part of the people’s food market ecosystem.
This means African scientists have a lot of work in researching local food systems and medicinal herbs for integration into global food and health systems.
To the extent that food and medicine go together, African scientists should ensure traditional herbal medicine is developed to be integrated into the national nutrition and health delivery systems.
Why herbal medicine deserves a new lease of life
While herbal medicine has now been accepted as a critical component of global health, it is sad to note that in most African countries where over 80 percent of the population relies on herbs for daily health needs, only few such herbs have been validated using research.
In the UK, Germany and other western countries, herbal medicine has been well integrated into the nation’s health system.
Rather than continue to witness poverty through over-prescription of medicinal products from other countries, it is the responsibility of African scientists to use evidence-based science in developing herbal products that are relevant to the majority of local people.
The diversity of local herbal products is often visible through people’s food markets.
It is from this evidence base that African scientists can begin properly defining what traditional medicine is, where it starts and stops as well as codifying the huge spectrum of herbs and medicines.
They should then be able to determine how traditional herbs and medicines relate to new terminologies like “alternative medicine”, “complementary medicine” and “herbal medicine”.
This effort can feed into further work on characterising and building genetic banks in ways that enhance herbal genetic conservation and prevent bio-piracy.
Regulators should play a leading role in this work to ensure African countries do not lose on royalties which are normally generated when genetic material gets improved into global brands.
Importance of verifying existing knowledge
Knowledge on traditional medicine continues to be shared through oral and learning by doing without comparison with modern scientific medicine. For instance, depending on African community, almost every indigenous tree is said to be medicinal.
How can science like biotechnology be used to verify such claims? How can science show the pros and cons of commercialising traditional medicine and indigenous food systems? How can regulatory platforms create molecular signatures (biobanks) of medicinal importance so that a data base will forever exist and anyone would seek permission to mine from it for research and other purposes?
Regulatory intervention will strengthen access to global benefit sharing agreements which curbs biopiracy of such genetic resources.
Like any other knowledge systems, indigenous knowledge systems have a ceiling beyond which some improvements or additions will be required.
For instance, while herbs can cure some ailments, it is not possible to scan a fractured leg using traditional medicine. Some of the knowledge dies with its generation.
To what extent can absence of science account for low productivity and new disease outbreaks and crop diseases that are being passed on from one crop to another?
Since most crops and herbs are seasonal, how can biotechnology help in preserving them without losing nutrients and medicinal properties?
These are some of the key questions waiting to be answered by African scientists and policy makers.