Barren Harvest

 What possible medical breakthroughs will be lost to climate change?

By: Vivian Kobusingye Birchall

Did you know that even in 2019 we are still discovering new medical uses for plants? Now, think of how many plants of medicinal value we may have already lost to climate change. 
Earlier this year, I attended the Harvard Global Health Catalyst summit at which the International Institute for Phytomedicines was launched as part of an effort to convert potential high-impact medicinal plants to evidence-based pharmaceutical grade products for global health and economic development. One of the plants being researched is Justica carnea, believed to contain hemoglobin. 

During one of his visits to his ancestral home in Cameroon, Dr. Wilfred Nwa, an Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, witnessed local households using the plant on patients exhibiting anemic symptoms and as a scientist, he was curious enough to bring the plant to a laboratory in the USA to research its phytochemical characteristics. This could be a big breakthrough in hematology for people who suffer from acute blood loss or chronic anemia and cannot receive blood transfusion because they have reactions to IV iron transfusions, or their religious beliefs prevent them from doing so.
This is just one example of a plant that could potentially save lives, if researched and made available to the public. 

However, climate change is a threat to biodiversity and plant species globally, and thus to the advancement of medical research. Medicinal plants are at stake, possibly getting wiped out through desertification, excess heat, wild forest fires like those in the Amazon, hurricanes, mudslides and other climate and weather events.

Every passing day, the human race is scrambling to deal with the effects of climate change, and also with emerging health issues.  Some health issues were previously treated with various species of plants and are now treated with compounds derived from plants. Scientists may want to study related species, but find they face the threat of extinction. If the world continues with this trend, we face the threat of a “barren harvest,” not just in the context of food, but also medicinal plants.

Historically, many communities used medicinal plants to treat various conditions, before the advent of modern medicine.  While some of these plants have already been characterized, they account for only about 15 percent of known species, with 85 percent yet to be explored.

Some of the medicinal plants’ contribution to contemporary medicine include quinine, which for many years was on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. Quinine, which is believed to have been used since 1631 to treat malaria, and most recently to treat lupus and arthritis, was derived from the bark of a cinchona tree. However, the cinchona family has 24 species recognized by botanists. Could we save the known species, and are there more that have not been discovered? These are questions we need to reflect upon.

Other concerns have been raised about threats to human settlement from climate change, such as displacement due to natural disasters due to rising sea levels, mudslides, and heat stress. This systemic displacement takes people away from the plant ecosystems they know and brings about depression.

We can draw from a previous environmental catastrophe, the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s that damaged the ecology and agriculture of the America’s South and Canadian prairies. This was not a result of climate change, but it is a reminder of what happens when we fail to become good land stewards.  In the American Economic Review, Richard Hornbeck analyzed the economic impact of the American dustbowl. According to his analysis, more-eroded counties experienced large and permanent relative declines in agricultural land values: the per-acre value of farmland declined by 30 percent in high-erosion counties and by 17 percent in medium-erosion counties, relative to changes in low-erosion counties. 

However, I would like to focus on the medical impact. Reports show that during this period, Dust Pneumonia – whose symptoms are fever, chest pain and difficulty breathing – killed an estimated 7,000 people. It is of concern that researchers at Princeton published new findings that the dust bowl could occur again as a result of climate change and could stir up fertilizers, and other hazardous material in soil. It is critical that the world acknowledges the threat of climate change to our medical advancement, livelihood and existence. 

Pro-actively, medical researchers, government and health-related non-profits need to fast-track the exploration and research of medicinal plants, while the species are still available. We may have a short window to learn about these plants if environmental and land stewardship habits do not improve.  


1.   Hornbeck, Richard. 2012. “The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short- and Long-Run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe.” American Economic Review 102 (4) (June): 1477-1507. doi:10.1257/aer.102.4.1477.
 2. The paper, “Projection of American dustiness in the late 21st century due to climate change,” was published July 17, 2017 in the journal Scientific Reports (doi 10.1038/s41598-017-05431-9 ) and is available online.

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