Environmental News Archive

An almost weekly update of environmental news, particularly marine updates, with occasional splatters of transportation, indigenous, ideas of sustainability and sustainable development from around the world.


M'sia wants tongkat ali to be its GINSENG OF TOMORROW

Plans to use traditional 'Viagra' herb to spearhead push into biotechnology
March 21, 2007
The Electric New Paper

THE herb's name may mean 'walking-stick of Ali' in Malay.

But the traditional herb tongkat ali (above) is what Malaysia is going to run with in its push into biotechnology.

It now faces the challenge of convincing the world that its answer to Viagra is both potent and safe.

As Malaysia looks to biotechnology for economic growth, scientists are taking a harder look at the reputed aphrodisiac qualities of tongkat ali, and they say it could lead to drugs to treat cancer and malaria.

Surging interest in tongkat ali has spawned dozens of products - from pills to beverages - that play up its reputed aphrodisiac properties, and could even threaten the sway of ginseng, a more-widely established herbal product in Asia.

A Malaysian industry and government group says the rapidly-growing global market for aphrodisiacs is worth US$4billion ($6b) and could reach nearly US$7 billion by 2012.

But plans for tongkat ali to grab a share of this pie hinge on proving it is safe.

In Taiwan this year, Taipei city officials banned six brands of coffee from supermarkets because they contained tongkat ali, saying the herb had not been evaluated for safe use, although there were no confirmed reports of side-effects, newspapers said.

The episode in January stirred indignation in Malaysia, where some officials publicly defended the herb, saying its safety and efficacy had been demonstrated by hundreds of years of use.

Others said the incident showed how far Malaysia still has to go to prove its claims for the herb.

Makers of ginseng, which has a global market of US$2 billion a year, according to some industry estimates, would be ruthless in battling competition from tongkat ali, said Mr M Rajen, chief executive of Tropical Botanics.

'What we see in Taiwan and elsewhere is an example of this ruthlessness,' Mr Rajen added.

'Because we have not done our homework, we cannot fight it.'

But Malaysia is confident it will convince the world.

Officials of Power Root Malaysia, which exports drinks containing the herb to Japan and South Korea, have said they are looking to the US and the Middle East.

Tongkat ali, marketed in tablet form, has started to make inroads into Japan, Utusan Malysia reported.

Scientific studies show that concoctions of tongkat ali can help hormone production, making rats and mice more frisky. But researchers say they have yet to prove it can reliably produce the same effect in humans.


MrAbdul Razak, head of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, said: 'For me, (the herbs) gives me the energy to play a game of golf without getting tired, but has no other effects.'

Five years of research studies in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US helped to identify key compounds in the herb, MrRazak said.

'We are now in the process of carrying out clinical studies, and hopefully after some time we might even commercialise this,' he added.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said in January at the launch of a US$7 million biotech research centre that will study ways to clone the herb: 'One day, tongkat ali will be marketed internationally, even in Harrods of London.' -Reuters