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StuttgartNext time you reach for ginseng tea or frankincense oil take a moment to consider life without it. Although neither of these plants are immediately at risk, they are cited as some of many examples in a new research paper by Wendy L. Applequist and colleagues that lays bare the damaging effects of climate change on the world’s curative plant species: the pushing-back and extinction of medicinal plants. The appeal, Scientists’ Warning on Climate Change and Medicinal Plants, has recently been published in Planta Medica (Thieme, Stuttgart. 2019) and endorsed by many scholars.

Medicinal plants are the primary drugs for 70 to 95 percent of most developing country populations and their use in wealthier countries is growing. The annual global export trade value for herbal ingredients is estimated to be almost US$33 billion. But these medicinal plants are threatened. The paper’s authors catalogue a range of risks for medicinal plants which are directly and indirectly related to climate change. These are higher temperatures, drought and heavy rain, increased carbon dioxide and rising pest and disease levels. Human-driven dangers do also include overharvesting. The paper divides the effects on plants into two categories: decreased availability and extinction, and changes in plant quality or productivity. Especially the latter is a cause of concern for the researchers, as the plants can change their medicinal effect or even lose it altogether.

The populations most likely to suffer from these effects are local communities and indigenous tribes. The plant communities most at risk are alpine meadows and those in northern latitudes. When the climate changes in traditional habitats, plants try to adapt or migrate to neighbouring habitats. According to the authors, some might not be able to or fast enough to settle in new habitats. The authors cite published research that predicts a “complete loss of habitat” for Tylophora hirsuta in certain regions of Pakistan. The plant is used to treat asthma and urinary retention. In another example, the acute pressures on Boswellia, the source of frankincense resin, are listed as farm expansion, fire, overexploitation, wood-boring beetle infestations and grazing.

If effects of overharvesting for global consumer markets and climate change are combined, the threat grows exponentially. In one projection, that the authors cite, the extinction risk for a population of American ginseng due to harvesting is estimated at 8 percent over the next 70 years. The climate change extinction risk alone is 6 percent. Taken together, the risk rises to 65 percent.

If mankind continues to fail in sustainable climate change mitigation, the authors recommend growing plants in community gardens to maintain local access and training harvesters in sustainable practices and plant quality monitoring. Last resorts are the assisted migration of plants and off-site seed banking.

The authors' appeal follows the tradition of the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" published in 1992 and 2017 and several other studies that show the effects of climate change on individual aspects of human life.

Reference

Wendy L. Applequist et al.:
Scientistsʼ Warning on Climate Change and Medicinal Plants.
Planta Medica 2019; eFirst 15.11.2019

About Planta Medica

Planta Medica is one of the leading international journals in the field of medicinal plant and natural product research. Planta Medica accepts original research papers as well as review articles from researchers worldwide. Thieme publishes 18 issues per year.

About Thieme

Thieme is a leading supplier of information and services contributing to the improvement of healthcare and health. Employing more than 1,000 staff, the family-owned company develops products and services in digital and other media for the medical and chemistry sectors. Operating internationally with offices in 11 cities worldwide, the Thieme Group works closely with a strong network of experts and partners. The products and services are based on the high-quality content of Thieme’s and 4,400 books 200 medical and scientific journals. These include 50 dedicated open access journals as well as numerous hybrid publications. This is all based on comprehensive services and many years of experience in communicating scientific information. With solutions for professionals, Thieme supports information processes in research, education, and patient care. Medical students, physicians, nurses, allied health specialists, hospitals, health insurance companies and others interested in health and healthcare are at focus of Thieme’s activities. The mission of the Thieme Group is to provide these markets with precisely the information, services, and products they need in their specific work situation and career. Providing top-quality services that are highly relevant to specific audiences, Thieme contributes to better healthcare and healthier lives. For more information about Thieme, please visit www.thieme.com.

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