Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Herbal Farming in India: Endeavor a niche in global Market

India has a rich population of medicinal plant species and is estimated as 2500 species available in this region. Of these, 2000 to 2300 species are used in traditional medicines while at least 150 species are used commercially - on a fairly large scale. India and Brazil are the largest exporters of medicinal plants. Medicinal plants in India are estimated to be worth Rs. 550 crore, ayurvedic ethical formulations contribute the remaining sum. Cosmetic industry as well as aroma therapy are the two important areas where Indian medicinal plants and their extracts, essential oil can contribute globally. Medicinal and aromatic plants have a promising market potential with the world demand of herbal products growing at the rate of 7 percent per annum. The WHO has listed 21,000 plants that have reported medicinal uses around the world. World Scenario at present - according to World Health Organisation (WHO) – more than I billion people rely on herbal medicines for their medical and therapeutic needs.

With the opening up of the global market for herbal and traditional medicinal plant extracts, and the subsequent increase in demand for the same, India is beginning to realise the potential for playing its own card in a sector that it has traditionally been strong at. It has resulted in many state governments propagating the cultivation of herbal and medicinal plants (setting up committees/boards in the process) on a larger commercial scale than before, to reach the international markets. As regards the Indian knowledge systems, there are apparently seven lakh registered practitioners of Indian systems of medicine (including Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Tibetan medicines) in the country. India is known to have 15,000 medicinal plants, which include 7000 used for Ayurveda, 700 in Unani and 600 in Siddha medicine, apart from other, perhaps non documented systems. The Asian countries together account for 16 per cent of the global market share (of the total US $62 billion) and the Chinese medicine has taken a large share of the export market, leaving India way behind. At present India exports 70 per cent in the form of crude drugs (unprocessed plants and extracts) and 30 per cent finished product which is not sufficient to become the world leader.

India is endowed, as no other country, with rich resources of medicinal and aromatic plants. An ‘herbal revolution’ is waiting to happen, but India has not grasped it as yet. This is an area where India could well achieve global leadership by exporting medicinal and aromatic produce and products. India is well qualified to meet the increasing demands of food, pharmaceuticals, perfumery, flavour and cosmetic industry. Consider the facts: it is blessed with 10 bio-geographic zones and 25 biotic provinces. It is one of the rare countries where more than 8000 medicinal plants grow; 2200 of these are known to have therapeutic properties. Ayurvedic medicinal formulations use about 600 herbs of which about 120 are consumed in high quantities. The World Bank estimates that global market for medicinal plants and their products is likely to grow to US$5 billion by 2050 growing at a rate of 14 per cent; with the areas of growth being pharmaceuticals.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Stevia - A Prospective Herbal Crop

Among traditionally accepted medicinal plants, Stevia has a viable global market .Stevia rebaudiana or Stevia is a native of Paraguay, which provides a whopping Rs.11.05 lakh returns in a cycle of three years as per industry estimates. Member of Compositae family (sunflower), Stevia is a sweet herb and is fast becoming a major source of high-potency bio-sweetener for the rapidly growing market for “natural” foods, replacing chemical sweeteners and even table sugar. Considered to be 300 times sweeter than sugar in its natural state, Stevia is useful in regulating blood sugar, preventing hypertension, treatment of skin disorders, and prevention of tooth decay. Studies show that it is a natural antibacterial and antiviral agent as well. On top of that, it is calorie and carbohydrate free and hence a great sweetener choice for diabetics, and those watching their weight.

Cane production in India is in trouble particularly due to excessive use of irrigation. Stevia, therefore, opens up new avenues for crop diversification and a viable alternative to sugarcane. The sweetness in the leaf is due to the presence of an intensive-sweetening agent called Stevioside. The leaf of Stevia contains 15-20% of Stevioside. There is a potential to use Stevia in soft drinks, confectionery, bakery, etc. instead of sweeteners with known adverse side effects in the long run. Stevia prevents tooth decay with its anti-microbial property. Majority of the supplementary food products for diabetic patients emphasize on the fiber and protein content. The addition of Stevia leaves, dried or in powder form, in such products would not only aid in increasing the natural sweetness but would also help in rejuvenating the pancreatic gland. Apart from this, Stevia is nutrient-rich, containing substantial amount of protein, calcium and phosphorus. Besides, Stevia can also be used as a household sweetener in preparation of most Indian sweetmeats.

Soil Type and Land preparation :Stevia plants grow best in rich, well-drained soils like red and sandy loam soils. The soil should be of fine tilth and a neutral pH level. The land should be initially harrowed and then ploughed to break down the clods. The site should not be susceptible to flooding or pudding. The raised beds should be of 15 cm (height) and 60 cm (width). The distance between two rows should be 40 cm and that between each plant 23 cm. This would give a plant population of around 30,000 per acre.

Irrigation :Micro-sprinklers / drips are the best method of irrigating Stevia plants to avoid damage by excessive levels of moisture. Frequent light watering is recommended during the summer months while once a day during winter months would suffice.

Fertilizer:Stevia plants respond well to fertilizers with lower nitrogen content than fertilizers with phosphoric acid or potash content. Most organic fertilizers would work well since they release nitrogen slowly. Since the feeder roots of Stevia plants tend to be very near to the surface, it is a good idea to add compost for extra nutrients if the soil is sandy. The recommended dose of fertilizer is 110:45:45 NPK/ac. This requires 41/2 bags of urea, 2 bags of DAP and 2 bags of Potash. The entire dose of DAP is applied as the basal dressing. The Nitrogen and Potash fertilizer can be split and applied as ten doses in every month. Nitrogen application is a must for the production of dry mattes.

Weeding & Maintenance :There is no pest and disease incidence in this crop. In case any disease symptom is noticed, spraying of Neem oil diluted in water is the best organic method. Removal of weeds can be done manually. Since the crop is grown in raised beds, inter-cultural operations are easier by manual labour. Flowering of the plant should be avoided. Pinching of the apical bud would enhance busy growth of the plant with side branches.

Harvesting :First harvest can be made after 4-5 months while the subsequent harvests can be made every 3 months for 3 years. The plants are cut just before flowering as the sweetener in the leaf is the maximum at that time. Leaves are harvested by plucking in a small quantity, or the entire plant with the side branches is cut leaving 10 to 15 cm from the base. The expected average yield would be 2700 kgs. of dried leaves per acre which is presently marketed at Rs.400 per kg.; only Rs.200 per kg. is recokned for our calculation.

Post Harvest :The harvested branches are dried in a shade and the dried leaves are stripped off from the branches. The dried leaves are powdered, sieved and the fine powder is stored in containers.

Marketing :Though relatively new to India, its marketing infrastructure is fast taking shape. More companies are expected to enter buy-back scene shortly. Hence, marketing should pose no problem. However, the prospective farmers themselves would be required to negotiate directly with the companies buying back and finalize their commercial and other terms. The total expenditure for the three-year life of the plant in one acre is likely to be Rs.5.15 lakhs as against which, the total income for the same period would be expected to be Rs.16.20 lakhs. This leaves a net profit of Rs.11.05 lakhs which is by far the highest that can be obtained from any crop currently being cultivated in India.Being a medicinal plant coming under horticultural crops, Stevia cultivation entitles one to tax-free returns. Subsidy may also be available from National Medicinal Plants Board. Financial support from Banks should be available for the cultivation of Stevia.

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