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  Channel NewsAsia 11 Dec 05
India experiments with farming medicinal plants
By Channel NewsAsia's India Correspondent Vaibhav Varma

NEW DELHI : Ancient schools of medicine likes ayurveda and unani are gaining fresh popularity in India. As these therapies require vast amounts of medicinal plants, agricultural institutes are conducting elaborate experiments to help farmers grow them on a large scale.

The Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana is one of India's leading centres of agri-research. It is spearheading experiments with about 140 different medicinal plants to see if they are suitable for large-scale cultivation.

Some varieties have emerged as alternatives to traditional wheat and rice crops. These include 10 types of menthol, aloe vera and stevia plants.

Farmers who started cultivating them reported that their soils became healthier and they earned better incomes than before.

Said Dr SS Saini, head of the Agronomy and Agrometeorology Department at Punjab Agricultural University, "While growing wheat and paddy, we had many problems like the accumulation of ground water and excessive use of insecticides. Diversification got rid of such problems. The farmers are the ones who gain the most benefits."

Sohan Lal, a menthol farmer, said, "We earn a yield of 10,000 to 12,000 rupees (US$220 to US$260) from every half hectare of land." From the aloe vera plant, gel is extracted and turned into beauty products. They are already being grown on some 64 hectares in Punjab, under contract farming from major brands.

And global demand is on the rise, too, urging a greater shift towards organic cultivation.

Said Ish Kumar Gupta, manager at Himalayan Herbal Products in Sangrur, Punjab, "We chose aloe vera because it's in great demand in European countries like France. We get regular orders from there. A major obstacle we face is that our farming is not organic as we use synthetic fertilizers. We're working to change that so as to increase exports."

It is a new, albeit small beginning for farmers as well as industrialists in the area.

More importantly, though, it is reviving centuries old traditions of natural medicine -- a going back to the roots as it were. - CNA /ct

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