With Everything to Be a Green Powerhouse Brazil Keeps Importing Its Herbs

    Sabrina Jeha and her plants by Nilza Bellini

    Sabrina Jeha and her plants by Nilza Bellini
    The climate is favorable, the soil is rich and the herbs and spices
    harvesting experiences in Brazil have been successful. Despite these factors,
    agronomist engineer Cirino Corrêa Júnior says the country still imports more
    medicinal, aromatic and condiment plants than it exports.

    He is one of the authors of the most thorough research done in Brazil on the subject, the “Study of the Agro industrial of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Complex of the Paraná State-Diagnostics and Perspectives.”


    He assures that the balance might lean toward Brazil if incentives and policies of approximating producer and buyer are adopted, policies like the ones developed  by the Paranaense Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Enterprise (Emater-Paraná).


    “One hectare of herbs is pretty profitable and corresponds, in gross value, to what is produced in 10 hectares of corn, for example,” says Corrêa Júnior, who is responsible for the area at Emater-Paraná.


    “But we do not encourage production unless the growers have buyers for their crops,” emphasizes Corrêa. Today, Paraná is responsible for 90% of the national production. The state is home to thousands of small rural properties that cultivate, in around 2,700 hectares, more than 70 of the botanic species utilized by the pharmaceutics, cosmetic, dye and tea and drinks industries including the grains market.


    This production yields approximately 19 million Brazilian reais annually (US$ 10.7 million).  Adding the gains of herb varieties harvested in the Paraná forests – 2,600 tons – to the mentioned production total we arrive at 22 million reais (US$ 12.4 million). Chamomile is amongst the most cultivated species as is ginger, whose exports represent an impressing 95% of the production.


    Correa Junior emphasizes three main causes responsible for the crop’s success. The first cause is the characteristic of the soil and climate which can be seen by the exuberance of native species such as “espinheira-santa, carqueja and chapéu de couro, “previously collected in “Araucária forest” but also harvested nowadays.


    The second contributing factor was the action by the immigrants, especially the Polish, German and Italians, who for more than a century had brought from Europe chamomile seeds and helped its acclimatization.


    Finally, there is strong backing from Emater-Paraná, with its small farmers alternative revenue program, especially directed to family agriculture. The Paraná Emater Agro-Ecology Center, in the municipality of Pinhais, works with more than 160 varieties. At the center, growers are taught, and, according to Corrêa Júnior, the complexities of farming must be understood.


    “The amount of the active potential of a plant depends on proper handling. For example, the chamomile found in the market shows, in average, around 0.2% of essential oil. But, with the use of correct techniques, we can raise the level, arriving at approximately 0.8%, that is, we can obtain a more powerful chamomile,” says Júnior.


    Corrêa Júnior admits feeling disturbed when he sees people without agricultural tradition and enough planting area trying to grow medicinal plants. According to him, plant varieties available on the marketplace are frequently below standard because of disregard to the basic pre- and post-harvesting care.


    The Emater-Paraná Experimental Center, however, does just that: it teaches these complex processes. “Cut, separation and drying require precise skills,” says the agronomist.


    It is not rare to find heavy dirt, insects, hair, foreign material of every kind, in the midst of plants besides microbiologic contaminants. “This problem is not only caused by the grower but also by the buyer, who in order to obtain greater profits does not demand quality,” informs Corrêa Júnior.


    The raw material cost is 3% of the final manufactured drug price. “It would take the industry only one additional percent of the price to get extremely good plants,” states Corrêa Júnior, who estimates that there are 300 middle and great buyers in Brazil. The profit margin would increase for both buyers and growers if there is direct contact between them, says the agronomist.


    The majority of the industries and pharmacies, however, buy from wholesalers who clean and pack the products. Other companies such as the traditional Farmaervas – which has operated since 1940 and exports to Japan, Portugal, and the United States – has its own crops or acquires overseas the material it uses.


    According to Waldomiro Paulino, director of the company, in a 90- hectare experimental farm 100 kilometers from São Paulo in Bragança Paulista,  tests are performed with about 100 varieties of native and acclimatized plants.


    The product of wholesalers such as Quimer Ervas and Especiarias are subject to processes that analyze microbiological composition and pollutants such as heavy metals.


    Elias Adas Neto, industrial pharmacist responsible for the quality control lab of the company,  says that requirements vary according to final use. “The pharmacies and industries subsequently confirm the specification of the product,” says Neto.


    Essential Care


    One would expect the medicinal plants growing tradition to be lost with urbanization, but it does not seem to be the case. At Nadir Dias Figueiredo Avenue, in the North side of São Paulo, the herbs cultivated in an area of 1,000 square meters exude a pleasant aroma which contrasts with the neighborhood’s polluted air.


    Owned by sisters Silvia and Sabrina Jeha, the Sabor de Fazenda (Farm Flavor) breeding ground – capable of holding 12,000 seedlings of 90 different species – has the same characteristics of a “centennial backyard,” such as those commonplace in the countryside where healers and sorcerers would seek remedies to treat illnesses such as verminosis, bronchitis, stress, insomnia, skin diseases, hair fall or, for the superstitious, “evil eye” (mau olhado).


    The nursery draws not only nostalgic clients but also landscape painters. “It is a present trend to use aromatic plants in small gardens,” says Sabrina. The advantages of utilizing medicinal plants have been spread by the Brazilian Catholic Church’s Child Pastoral, whose Home-Made Remedies Project has focused on initiating mothers and other family members in the planting techniques.


    Tereza Jesus da Silva, 52, housewife, is one of the multipliers of this action in the Taboão da Serra, one of the neediest neighborhoods in the greater São Paulo. “We use backyard gardens to plant medicinal plants in six of the 64 parishes of the Campo Limpo Diocese, which includes Taboão da Serra,” she says.


    The local population which shows high  verminosis incidence, colds and skin diseases is taught by community leaders who visit these parishes how to prepare syrups, homemade remedies, creams, soaps and herb-based gels.


    The Campinas State University (Unicamp) professor, Pedro Melillo, observes that it is necessary, however, to establish the adequate dosage even in cases where the efficacy of species has been proved by traditional use. Due to their high toxic level, some plants such as the “erva-de-santa-maria,” usually utilized as a vermifuge, might cause harm.


    Roberto Boorhem, current president of the Brazilian Institute of Medicinal Plants, explains that there is no standardization from the Medicine Counsels regarding the prescription of plant-based drugs. Roberto, who is specialized in Phytotherapy and Chinese Traditional Medicine, alerts  that this leniency allows mistakes to happen, such as miscalculations in combining synthetic drugs and herbal extracts usually prescribed to lose weight.


    Another grave risk the user takes is in confusing varieties with forms and similar aromas. “This confusion may create problems with natural therapies,” says agronomist Marcos Furlan. He is a professor with a doctorate in basil essential oils who also teaches basic, short-duration courses at the Organic Agriculture Association (AAO) of São Paulo. The first step there is to learn how to correctly identify different species.


    Disregarding these matters, a great number of Brazilians keep on consuming infused plants in an attempt to heal their ailments. The majority of these users belong to the poorer segments of society.


    Many seek the plants in street fairs where street peddlers such as the Alagoas-born Eduardo Alves makes his living through the sale of leaves and dried roots offered in rustic plastic bags. “My father has sold plants for 38 years,” says Eduardo. His products, lacking definite origin  or specific indication, do not scare costumers like José Cardoso, 41, who acquires Alves herbs to make tea.


    There are also specialized pharmacies such as  As Plantas Curam (Plants Heal) where it is possible to find  more than a thousand prepared plants with cereal-based alcohol, all exempt of record, according to the bottle labels. Pharmacist André Affonso dos Santos informs that the establishment offers more than 300 species of leaves or dried barks, bought from wholesalers.


    Phytotherapics


    Besides the homemade drugs, medicinal plants are also used in the making of phytotherapics – drugs exclusively produced from raw vegetal material and whose commercialization depends upon brand registering granted by the National Agency of Sanitary Care (Anvisa).


    In Brazil, the classification of medicine as phytotherapic is recent; it appeared in 1995. Since getting registration from Anvisa requires a series of complex proceedings identical to the actions required for synthetic remedies, the Phytotherapic Sector, Nutritional Supplement and Health Promotion Enterprises Agency (Abifisa) seeks alternatives to minimize these difficulties.


    For this reason, it sent a suggestion to the Brazilian National Congress with sanitary care dispositions to which “natural originated” products would be subject. A bill whose reporter is the representative Luiza Erundina was shaped from this suggestion. This bill proposes the creation of a new classification – intermediary between food and medicine – for the phytotherapics.


    “The World Health Organization (WHO) has long recommended, when treating minor illnesses, the use of unconventional therapies, today called complementary, among them phytotherapy,” says Magrid Teske, Abifisa president.


    “We want to differentiate the phytotherapic product derived from the whole medicinal plant from the phytomedicament – product made with isolated active principles that most of time show the same effectiveness as the “integral phytocomplex,” she explains.


    “If the bill is approved, the demand for medicinal plants will stimulate planting and help small growers,” says Magrid. The proposal is polemical and still does not have the Anvisa certification. “We will only make a comment at the right time,” says Edmundo Machado Neto, the agency’s technician.


    Independently from this discussion, The Ministry of Health, through the Natural Medicine and Complementary Practices National Policy (PMNPC), expects to make available medicinal plants and phytotherapy at the branches of the SUS (Unified Health System) all over the country.


    Rich Diversity


    The book Alternative Medicine from A to Z, despite being called fraudulent by critics has become a bestseller in Brazil since 2004. The medicinal properties of plants is also a serious study subject and has aroused increasing interest among scientists.


    Important Brazilian universities maintain research centers for the production of vegetal-based medicine and around 5,000 papers on the subject have already been published. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology companies have progressively invested in investigating active principles yet unknown.


    Despite these investments, researchers of Brazilian plants face adversities. The genetic vegetal diversity of the country is one of the world’s greatest – it has more than 55,000 catalogued species of an estimated total of 350-500,000 species.


    Although it is not exactly known how many of those plants have valuable properties for human health, researches of native species are practically halted “because of an insane bureaucracy implanted by the Environment Ministry,” according to Elisaldo Luiz de Araújo Carlini, professor of Psychopharmacology of the Psychobiology Department at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).


    One of the field’s most respected researchers, Carlini directed studies in pharmacology and pre-clinic toxicology at Unifesp, focusing on different types of plants, which are active on the central nervous system.


    The importance of the studies that were developed, however, haven’t found due recognition from the official bureaucracy. “The Genetic Patrimony Management Counsel (CGEN), from the Environment Ministry, has no criteria to deal with applicants and has imposed so many requirements for the approval of projects that have made it almost impossible to complete these studies,” complains the professor.


    For Alex Botsaris, former president of the Brazilian Medicinal Plants Institute, the CGEN, which regulates the access to the Brazilian biodiversity, has transformed itself into a mega bottleneck that makes the work of scientists impossible, mostly by not keeping databanks with the results of performed researches in Brazilian plant species.


    “In an attempt to protect the national patrimony, CGEN creates difficulties, which are, however, are easily overcome by foreign researchers,” says Botsaris. “The governmental budget destined to the sector is also insignificant.”


    The private initiative, on the other hand, invests in partnerships with academia. Unicamp maintains at the Multidisciplinary Center of Chemical, Biologic and Agriculture Researches a  breeding ground with 350 species, largely used by local residents and people from neighboring cities who need  to identify herbs growing in their backyard.


    But the principal focus of the center, directed by Pedro Melillo, is to raise levels of active principles with the objective of obtaining richer varieties. Most of the researches developed at the center are recommended by the pharmaceutical sector.


    At Unicamp, for example, it has been possible to make a more potent “quebra-pedra”  (Phyllanthus niruri L.), from which phyllanthine is extracted, to be used in the production of hepatitis B medicine. Melillo additionally informs: “Nobody can patent a plant. What is patented is the name or formula of a medicine.” Thus, even when multinationals produce drugs based on Brazilian plants, nothing prevents new researches with the same plant species. That is good news for users and scientists.


    A Latex-Based Healer


    The Brazilian Industry of Biotechnology is still under represented in the world. But it is already producing efficient medicaments for a low price from plants’ active principle. Thanks to a natural material derived from latex, for example, chronic lesions such as skin ulcers resistant to conventional treatment can now be cured.


    All it takes is to cover the wound with dressing derived from the vegetal polymer of latex. Constituted of a thin, elastic, translucid, easily handled “biomembrane,” this dressing induces a process called “neoangiogenesis,” that is, the production of new blood vessels that help multiply cells to be used in cicatrization.


    Polymers are big molecules formed by molecular units that repeat themselves, named “monomers.” The process through which monomers get together is called “polymerization.”


    There are many natural polymers. For example, cellulose is a polymer of glucose that is found in plants. Yet, the polymer from the latex-based dressing, nicknamed “Biocure,” is obtained through chemical reaction. It undergoes a process that guarantees its sterile condition, for latex is toxic when ingested or utilized in natura and may cause burns and pain, mucous irritation, edema, nausea and vomit.


    Polymerization and other processes give the membrane a particular geometry, capable of ensuring protein and cellular adherence to the wounded skin and, consequently, stimulate cicatrization.


    “The only similar product in the market is American and costs around 50 times more,” informs Ozires Silva, director of Pelenova Biotecnologia, responsible for the manufacturing of the product.


    “Biocure may not be used in wounds caused by cancer or by latex-intolerant people,” he warns.


    The effectiveness of the dressing was verified by means of clinic studies performed in medical universities that analyzed a large range of reactions from hyper sensibility to the product to the evaluation of leg ulcers treatment, typical in diabetic patients.


    The results were positive in the majority of the cases. Another important application for Biocure, artificial esophagus transplant, is being tested in animals.


    Nilza Bellini is a Brazilian journalist. She has written for dailies O Estado de S. Paulo and Jornal do Brasil and magazine Problemas Brasileiros – where this piece appeared originally – among other publications. She can be reached at nilzabel@hotmail.com.

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