Nature is amazingly brilliant and capable of beating man’s tinkering and mimicry. Science has turned to herbal medicine for an effective malaria cure, because the only thing that really works cannot be concocted synthetically. It must come straight from the plant, because the parasites have developed resistance to all pharmaceutical drugs. This makes traveling to or living in, certain parts of the world a health hazard. And because plants don’t perform like machines and chemistry labs, the superbug behavior of the malaria parasite puts a big crimp in mass manufacturing and profit.

The Problem

Plants do their thing at their own pace. In this case, it’s the volatile compound, artemisinin, produced only by the annual Sweet Wormwood (Artemesia annua). Sometimes called mugwort, and known in Chinese natural medicine as qinghao su, a name under which the dried herb is still sold as a home remedy to treat fevers. The problem drug companies face begin with the length of time the plant takes to produce artemisinin. It’s not present until it reaches the mature flowering stage at 190-240 days after sowing the seed. Then there’s that battle with weeds. Broad spectrum weed killers aren’t an option. And they’re unhappy about only getting .5mg out of every gram of dried leaves. The low yield doesn’t allow for making large quantities at all.

Science has been working on finding a way to increase artemisinin. Early manipulation attempts using plant hormones didn’t produce great results for an earlier harvest. The plant still needs to mature to get the maximum amount of artemisinin out of it. The hydroponic growing of Sweet Wormwood did make it much more cost effective, along with greatly reducing crop disease possibilities. But due to the length of time it takes to produce the plant from seed, it was a greater investment than the industry found adaptable. Then they tried tissue culture. This reduced the growing time, but it also caused fast deterioration of the things that make artemisinin the effective herbal medicine it is against malaria.

More recently, genetic modification scientists have looked into a solution to this dilemma. Notably, two studies were done by Dr. Shashi Kumar at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, in New Delhi. The choice of plant to begin working with? Tobacco. There’s a healthy cure! But it was selected because GMO scientists know it well, it produces a lot of leaf mass, and grows fast. First, they had to figure out if a good increase of the volatile compound was possible, and if it could be done by inserting it into a different plant. It worked on the second attempt and discovered it was possible to produce .08mg per gram of leaf mass.

Enter “Herbal Medicine”

In the past, Dr. Kumar found that some plant cells acted like a safeguard that stopped stomach acids and enzymes from tampering with the chemicals in medicines before reaching the gut where the body absorbs them. At this point in his study, he became curious if simply consuming the leaves would be as effective as extracting the artemisinin and manufacturing a drug out of the end compound. So, he infected some mice with malaria parasites. Some he treated with the extract, and others with the dried tobacco leaves. And which do you think was the most effective cure?

Yes, the leaves. The mice treated with leaves had 66% fewer parasites than those treated with the extract. Next, he will run this test on human volunteers. When that proves equally as successful, the product launch will likely fail. Mainstream medicine won’t accept it even if lettuce or spinach plants produced the artemisinin. They’re all heavily programmed by drug companies that herbal medicine is a myth, and there is no quality control with plants. And those with open minds will be broadcasting, “Pharmaceutical chemistry is no match for natural healing!” Until they realize it’s a GMO…

Emerging Consumer Dilemma

But this discovery presents us with a new problem. This will proceed just as it did in food. Why spend the money on extractions and processing if they can peddle dried leaves? It will become impossible to tell if your herbal medicine or herbal supplement is the real thing, or has been genetically tampered with to reduce costs and increase profits. There will be companies in the health supplements industry who will jump on the opportunities genetic modification presents. Consider the recent events on the label were found not present, or not in the stated amount. If they’ll do that, they will find the possibility of increased potency or additions through genetic engineering of great benefit. Their customer would be none the wiser – there’s no law that says they have to identify GMO contents.

New and improved takes on a whole new meaning with genetic engineering. While we desperately need official certification that a product a person can apply to their skin or ingest is from totally natural, non-GMO, and pesticide-free sources, it will be a long time coming. Perhaps never at all.

Now is a great time to start growing your own herbal medicine. It’s the perfect addition to any garden. In fact, it might be the right time to start seeking out locally grown herbs for all your home remedies and natural healing. Heads up small farms and indoor growers – be there ready to fill the demand.

Sources:

Amber

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
The garden played a starring role from spring through fall in the house Amber was raised in. She has decades of experience growing plants from seeds and cuttings in the plot and pots.