TEHRAN, Iran — The world has seen great advances in medicine in recent centuries, leading to the discovery and manufacture of numerous types of drugs to cure diseases. Yet many around the world still prefer to use plants and natural products to improve their health, mainly to avoid side effects caused by chemical drugs. As a result, the production of medicinal plants has emerged as a new industry, with their exports rising over the past several decades. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global sales of such herbal medicine products were estimated at $60 billion in 2002. The figure jumped to $150 billion in 2013 and this trajectory is set to continue in coming decades.
In Iran, however, things are different. Exports of medicinal plants have declined in the past two decades, even though the country is home to 8,000 plant species, of which more than 2,300 have medicinal properties. A whopping 1,728 of them are endemic to Iran.
The country was the world’s top exporter of medicinal plants in 1998. But this declined in the ensuing years, and was ranked fifth in 2003 and 32nd in 2014. Currently, Iran ranks 60th among exporters of medicinal herbs, which gives the country only a 3% share of global markets. Saffron and damask rose have the lion’s share ($500 million) of Iran’s annual medicinal plants exports ($600 million). Germany and the United Arab Emirates are currently the main export destinations of Iranian medicinal herbs, followed by Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.
Iranian exporters blame sanctions for the declining exports. “Before sanctions, the US and Europe were the biggest customers of Iran’s medicinal plants. But currently, Iranian producers cannot sell their products due to sanctions and issues related to money transactions,”Jalil Maghazeie, head of the Iranian Herb and Spice Association, told local media Nov. 21. This is while other officials believe that the relatively low production and export of medicinal plants is related to domestic factors such as the lack of required product processing standards.
“Lack of [adherence to] standards has made it difficult for [medicinal] plants such as tea and tisanes to enter and compete in global markets. That’s why products such as tea are still imported,” Mohammad-Baqer Rezaie, who heads the Iranian Medicinal Plants Society, was quoted as saying Sept. 2.
Other internal factors have also posed challenges to the production and exports of botanical plants. These obstacles include the absence of modern technology and good marketing. In the meantime, the lack of integrated management, among other things, has resulted in parallel activities by different organizations while creating a gap in rules and regulations.
At the same time, medicinal plants are threatened by Iran’s severe shortage of water, unrestrained harvesting that could bring about the extinction of rare species, and pollution caused by agricultural pesticides.
To address these challenges and others, Iran has taken “a range of systematic measures” and set objectives for the years to come. As listed by the Vice Presidency for Science and Technology, the measures include updating regulations and standards and focusing on the country’s education and research system. Also on the agenda are plans to improve production, distribution, marketing and exports.
To better carry out the measures, the Vice Presidency for Science and Technology set up the Headquarters of Scientific and Technological Development of Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine in 2008. The headquarters’ main task is coordinating activities of various private and government companies, promoting the culture of using medicinal herbs and disseminating information about achievements. The headquarters has a number of specialized working groups, each tasked with long lists of activities and pursuing set goals.
Under the policy to develop medicinal plants, Iran will soon start the implementation of a national plan to increase annual exports to more than $3.2 billion within six years.
On Oct. 19, Peiman Yusefi-Azar, an official at the Agriculture Ministry and the top executive of the plan, said: “Fortunately, after extensive efforts backed by the government and parliament, the national medicinal herbs plan is at the final stages of getting approval. The plan already has the green light from the Resistance Economy Command Center.”
Yusefi-Azar was also reported by local media as saying that the plan has been approved as a leading job-creation project at the country’s Supreme Council of Employment. He said credit facilities estimated at $800 million have been allocated to the plan for the next six years, which is predicted to create jobs for 160,000 people.
Other measures to develop the medicinal herbs industry include those on the ground. Iran plans to increase areas under cultivation of medicinal plants to 500,000 hectares (1,930 square miles) by 2025, up from the current 150,000 hectares. The country is also setting up five export terminals for medicinal herbs, with the first one under construction in southern Fars province.
Simultaneously, Iran pursues cooperation with other countries. It has signed memorandums of understanding with several countries to export its medicinal plants, and has been in talks with Germany to import botanical drug production technology.
The medicinal plants industry has proven to be quite a profit-making one in the world, with bright prospects ahead. It currently has a $122 billion cash flow, which is predicted to quickly rise as demand for medicinal herbs is rapidly expanding across the globe.
For a country such as Iran, which seeks to decrease its dependence on oil revenues as part of efforts to fast-track economic development, the medicinal plants industry is regarded as a good field to invest in. Apart from financial benefits, the industry is also helpful in terms of other matters such as bringing new sources of income for rural people to help contain a wave of migration by villagers to big cities in search of higher income. In addition to all these issues, it also is undeniable that medicinal herbs can have significant positive impacts on people's health and well-being.