Thais fear biopiracy of kwaao khruea

by GRAIN | 26 Oct 1998
TITLE: Experts want new bill passed soon Concern over piracy by foreign companies --- TITLE: Use of Thai herb can be hazardous Doctors say beware of serious side effects

AUTHOR: Anjira Assavanonda PUBLICATION: The Bangkok Post DATE: 19 October 1998 URL:

The Bangkok Post 19 October 1998


Anjira Assavanonda

Plant experts are calling for a speed-up of the new Plant Variety Protection Bill to prevent piracy of kwaao khruea, the Thai herbs reported to be eyed by foreign investors due to its potential to become high-value medicinal products both in domestic and oversea markets.

Wichai Cherdshewasart, Chulalongkorn University Faculty of Science researcher, said he has heard that local markets of kwaao khruea (or pueraria mirifica), are being cornered by foreign investors, particularly Japanese firms.

"Now at least one Japanese firm is planning to run a permanent project in Thailand. The project is believed to be in full cycle, from plant breeding to product manufacturing," said Dr Wichai.

Pennapa Subcharoen, director of the National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine, cited an unofficial report as saying the selling of kwaao khruea to foreigners is widespread in northern provinces such as Phrae, Nan, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Sakon Nakhon, and other border provinces. Some foreigners who have long settled in Thailand even open a small shop to purchase the plant from villagers. Such practices would soon result in extinction of the plant because villagers would think of nothing but money. She added the price of kwaao khruea in local markets is very cheap, only 120-250 baht per kilogramme, while the price in oversea markets is rising to over a thousand baht per kilo.

Now Japanese investors are waiting for state permission to import kwaao khruea to their countries, but what they want is only powdered kwaao khruea to be used as raw materials for their own products. These products might return for sale in Thailand at higher prices.

"If the bill is enforced, I believe more of our plants would be saved. But it's a matter for the bureaucratic system which is always too slow," said Dr Pennapa.

A source from the Agriculture Department's Botany and Weed Science Division's plant protection office revealed that some Japanese, German and American firms are now conducting research on pueraria mirifica in Thailand. If they are successful in breeding the plant and registering it as their own invented species, it would be a great disadvantage to Thailand.

He admitted so far there has been neither an official survey by state agencies on the exact amount of kwaao khruea nationwide, nor any plan to protect this type of plant.

According to the source, the most effective law is the new Plant Variety Protection Bill, which is now under consideration by the Council of State.

The bill was proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, after being drafted by a group of academics, biodiversity advocates and the Forum of the Poor. It is aimed at protecting both plant species existing in nature and newly-modified varieties, and addressing ways to protect and conserve the country's biodiversity resources which are at risk from piracy.

The protection of newly-bred species would be an incentive for breeders to create commercial plant varieties. According to the new bill, local communities which preserve the species should share the benefit with breeders who make use of local plant varieties.

However, there was concern that protection of kwaao khruea would be too late if the authorities waited for the new bill because it is expected to take some time before enforcement.

The department source said the best way to protect the plant now is to issue

a ministry regulation declaring kwaao khruea a preserved plant to bar it from being exported, but more study and discussion is needed before the ministry makes a decision.

Researchers who are successful in inventing their own formula for the plant products could protect their rights by registering the formula under the copyrights law.

Dr Wichai said he is now selecting a private firm for a joint venture in a full-cycle project starting from growing the plant and making medicinal products.

The chosen company must follow four criteria - production must be based on academic data, the project must be in full cycle, the company must have potential to compete in international markets, and the products must be sold at reasonable prices for Thai people.

© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1998


The Bangkok Post 19 October 1998


Anjira Assavanonda

Experts are warning of serious side effects from careless use of kwaao khruea, a Thai herb which is believed to help enlarge breasts.

Dr Wichai Cherdshewasart, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Science, said although the benefits of kwaao khruea had been scientifically tested and proven through practical use for years, the herb should be applied, starting with small dosage, to determine its side effects to users such as vomiting, nausea or skin rashes.

He said the herb must not be given to those who are suffering from tumor or cancers of the breasts, ovaries, and uterus, as well as those who have problems of the thyroid gland.

Teenagers are not recommended because their bodies are not fully developed. The use of kwaao khruea will hardly cause any change in their physical structure, and even produce side effects, said Dr Wichai. Overdose of kwaao khruea can result in cracked bones, skin rashes, dizziness and even death, he said.

There are many varieties of kwaao khruea which can be divided into three main types: the white kwaao khruea (pueraria mirifica), red (butea superba), and black.

White kwaao khruea has a white round bulb like mun kaew (pachyrrhizus erosus), and the colour of its flowers are usually white or sometimes light purple. Red kwaao khruea has a tapioca-shaped bulb, and the red latex will come out when the skin is peeled.

The most popular type is the white one because it helps stimulate oestrogen, a hormone produced in the ovaries of female animals to control the reproductive cycle. Therefore, white kwaao khruea is more beneficial to the female, while the red one is believed to stimulate male hormone, said to Dr Wichai, adding that research on the red one is yet to be done.

On the bright side, he said the herb can produce fair shining skin, black hair and firm breasts.

Those who could benefit from white kwaao khruea include women between the reproductive ages of between 20 and 45, who have a low level of female hormones which will result in infertility of menstruation, imperfect shape, poor complexion, etc.

Another group which can potentially benefit are menopausal women or women whose ovaries have been removed.

Dr Wichai said it would be much better if this group turned to products from Thai herbs which are much cheaper, and could be produced in the country.

Dr Wichai said kwaao khruea will have the utmost effect.

Pennapa Subcharoen, director of the National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine, Medical Services Department, warned that consumers should be careful between white and red kwaao khruea, since both of them have been sold on the market.

Even the pueraria mirifica itself can have different properties due to the condition of the soil where the plant is growing. Therefore, complete research should be done before any information is publicised, he said.

Dr Pennapa said kwaao khruea naturally grows in forests, particularly in the northern provinces of Thailand.

"Of course, these villagers do not have enough knowledge about this type of

plant. When they see a lot of kwaao in similar shapes and colours, they just collect them for the sake of money, but they could not distinguish which is pueraria mirifica or not. So nobody could ensure the substance we obtain has come from the right source," she said.

Dr Pennapa pointed out that so far research on the plant has been incomplete, and more has to be done on side effects probably caused from long-term dosage.

© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 1998

Author: GRAIN
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