Global Warming’s Latest Victim: Medicinal Plants

Are We Losing Medicinal Plants to Global Warming?

Traditional medicinal plants have been used for centuries to treat local communities. From herbal and tribal medicine to the Science of Ayuveda, nearly 80 percent of the world depends on medicinal plants. And even if you think it’s some sort of pseudo science, understand that pharmaceutical drugs use these plants as direct ingredients and you couldn’t have one without the other. At the same time, an undiscovered plant could also hold the key to curing a deadly disease like AIDS or cancer. But just like our rainforests, oceans, and animals are all vulnerable to a changing climate, so too are the medicinal plants that we depend for healthcare.

“Of the 7.2 billion people who live on Earth now, about 5 billion of them don’t go to the local Walgreens to get their prescriptions filled,” Lewis Ziska, a U.S. Department of Agriculture plant physiologist specializing in plants’ response to global warming said to The Daily Climate. “Rising CO2 levels and climate change may have a huge impact on native peoples’ ability to provide for their own healthcare.”

How does global warming impact these medicinal plants? Well, for starters, as the planet warms, many of these so-called weeds start to move north. This means that they don’t grow in the areas that needed them the most. Plus, rising carbon levels may actually change the plant chemistry, making them less effective in the long run, and that could have devastating effects on the communities that rely on them.

One Indian study looked at the impact of climate change on medicinal plants used for Ayurveda. According to the study, the best herbs must be collected from a certain region of the Himalayas, as they are considered the most potent. In fact, Ayurvedic text names 351 Ayurvedic formulations and 175 pharmaceutical drugs that are sourced from one region. These areas are located at high regions in the Himalayas.

According to the study:

Medicinal plants are highly valuable to human livelihood and the medicinal plant wealth of India is well recognised. Studies on possible effects of climate change on medicinal plants are particularly significant due to their value within traditional systems of medicine and as economically useful plants. There is evidence that climate change is causing noticeable effects on life cycles and distribution of the plant species.

Small pockets of vulnerable land may be home to large portions of our medicinal plants and once they disappear, we’re in real trouble. Not to mention, that they may also hold the key to diseases that have yet to be cured. What if a vaccine for a chronic killer is hidden in a region that falls victim to deforestation? Or maybe it ceases to exist because it’s no longer protected by a shield of ice caps or snow. What a shame it would be if we never found that long awaited cure because the plant no longer existed as a result of our warming planet.

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Image of medicinal plants from Shuttershock