March 27, 2007

From Tony Wren:

Re: Traditional plant knowledge gives health boost: study (March 19): I was highly amused to see this item. Surely it is not news that traditional medicines work.

It’s such a familiar idea, which disappeared from European consciousness for only a couple of hundred years or so, but has been back for decades, surely. “Ex­act­ly how ma­ter­nal cul­tur­al knowl­edge pro­tects child health is un­known, but the re­sults high­light the im­por­tance of pre­serv­ing as­pects of tra­di­tion­al cul­ture as so­ci­eties adapt to glob­al­iza­tion”.

What does this mean?

Does it mean we don’t know exactly what medicines or practices the Tsimane use, or we don’t see how knowing about plants can make people healthier? The Tsimane might well say “Exactly how American doctors make people better is unknown”. This doesn’t make it a mystery. The therapeutic value of plants is well accepted in the West. But there must still be hundreds of important materials that we don’t know about yet, so yes, it’s important for this reason alone (and it’s of course not the only one) why traditional cultures must not give way to globalisation.

And it’s interesting that plant extracts are only fully “accepted” by Western science when they have been so refined as to bear little relation to the context in which they are found and used traditionally.

One identifiable chemical may become regarded as the “active ingredient” but this may not be as effective in isolation as in the context of the other ingredients found in the original material.

How long was it before we realised that iron was absorbed better taken together with folic acid?

And how much longer before we noticed that both are present in the foods traditionally associated with healthy blood?


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