Chinese medicinal herbs are in short supply with annual demand soaring to 600,000 tons, four times the amount of ten years ago, according to a senior health official.
"The demand for natural medicinal herbs has been boosted by improved awareness of health and healthcare in an aging society," Deputy Health Minister She Jing told the International Ethnopharmacology Conference in Nanning, capital of southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
The minister said market demand for traditional Chinese medicine had maintained a 15-percent annual increase over the past ten years.
However, the crop area of medicinal herbs dropped from 270,000 ha in 2003 to less than 200,000 ha in 2004, because of the lack of supply of wild seeds.
About 60 to 70 percent of the 3,000 endangered plants in China had medicinal effects. The protection and exploration of wild herbs was key to sustaining China's pharmaceutical industry, said She, who is also director of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It is estimated that at least 340,000 ha. of cropland is needed to meet the demand, but there is a shortage of about 80 of 400 commonly used herbs.
The three-day conference was attended by more than 400 pharmaceutical workers from 29 countries and regions.
Peter J. Houghton, president of the International Society for Ethnopharmacology, said the past 30 years had seen fast commercialization of traditional medicine. Pharmacists had a duty to make effective use of traditional medicines.
Customs figures show China exports 240,000 tons of medicines annually, of which 200,000 tons are raw herbs. The exported raw herbs accounted for 20 percent of the country's annual harvest.
China exported its traditional medicines to 164 countries and regions in 2005, with export earnings reaching a record 830 million U.S. dollars, according to the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The export earnings represented a 14.55 percent increase from the previous year. However, most of the earnings came from exports of low value-added extracted herbal substances and raw materials.
In China, more than 3,000 enterprises are engaging in traditional Chinese medicine processing. In 2004, the industry generated 90 billion yuan (11.1 billion US dollars) in output value, accounting for 26 percent of China's entire pharmaceutical section.