Herbs Without Patents

Traditional herbalists express concerns about the proclivity of pharmaceutical companies to patent medicines and plants that have been part of historical healing practices that are as old as human beings. This has been a controversial subject, and recently the government of India has taken steps to insure that these traditional practices remain in the public domain and cannot be patented by biotech companies seeking to make profits on indigenous knowledge.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library currently has more than 150,000 entries from various traditional healing systems including Unani and Ayurveda. The story of this tremendous undertaking was published in the Ecologist . Tumeric and neem are examples of two herbs for which patents were extended, and only after decades of lawsuits and appeals were the patents overturned.

Those of us who forage for food and use natural plant medicine must be vigilant that our rights are not usurped by government regulations, either by those who seek to patent plants medicine or by those who feel one plant or another should be made illegal due to some effect that they feel needs to be proscribed.

This is also the reason there is controversy about the licensing of herbalists. While some believe this would be a benefit and allow rules and guidelines to be put in place for protection of consumers, others believe that such a restriction would end indigenous practices that have been in place for generations. Stephen Harrod Buhner has penned an excellent essay about why herbalists should not be certified.

Personally, I want to retain the freedom to eat and use for medicine whatever plants thrive in my environment. I applaud the Indian government for leaving this legacy for all to share.

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