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If the huge boom in herbal medicine continues unchecked, up to a fifth of the plant species on which the industry depends could disappear, according to new reports. This could in turn jeopardise the health and livelihoods of the poor in India and China who harvest them.

Studies are showing that the industry — which fuels a world market worth US$20 billion — largely fails to ensure its raw material is harvested sustainably. The conservation group Plantlife International will publish a report next week that reveals an uncertain future for many of the wild plants.

Some experts say Plantlife's criticism is too conservative. Whole forests have already been decimated because of the demand for African cherry bark, used to treat prostate problems. Only a concerted effort by herbal practitioners, environmental groups and the industry itself can, they say, turn the tide.

Link to news story in New Scientist