Oiling the wheels of natural healthcare
April 23rd 2018, 15:34
When it comes to sustainable healthcare, the West could learn from the East
I was honored to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural International Integrative Medicine Conference in Malaysia this February. I spent my childhood in Malaysia, as well as a year in the mid-1990s working with university and government researchers on natural ways to combat insect pests.
In my mind, there's a clear parallel between my agricultural research of 20 years ago and Malaysia's current healthcare predicament: spiraling rates of metabolic disease for which pharmaceutical drugs provide little benefit. Malaysian authorities appear to show stronger support than their Western counterparts for the overriding mission of the Alliance for Natural Health, the non-profit organization I founded in 2002 with the goal to protect and promote natural healthcare.
A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that drugs are increasingly unsuited to the plethora of degenerative, diet and lifestyle-related diseases that afflict so many worldwide.
But contrary to what we are led to believe, objective science is far from being the main consideration that determines which medical approach becomes the accepted norm.
Politics and economics, coupled with an unhealthy dose of cronyism, are often far bigger influences. That's why we continue to see so many drugs failing to deliver their promises of cure, and why prescription drugs are consistently rated as the third biggest killers in industrialized societies after heart disease and cancer. 1
At the conference, I spoke about sustainability—the central theme that ties together the last 35 years of my work in food production and healthcare systems.
For Malaysians and Indonesians, 'sustainability' isn't just a meaningless buzz word. It's part of daily life—a common theme most often linked to these countries' controversial palm oil industry.
In the last two decades, vast tracts of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest have been flattened to grow oil palm trees, the source of palm oil, making these two countries by far the largest producers of the commodity worldwide.
Almost every part of the oil palm tree is used, with the fruit and seed oils found in a wealth of industrial processes, soaps and foods.
The European Parliament is seeking to stop imports of palm oil products that aren't sustainably grown and prohibit its use for biofuels. Since the US and Europe are among the biggest importers of palm oil, any precedent set in Europe has important consequences for vast numbers of people—not least the 3.25 million Malaysians whose employment is directly linked to the palm oil industry.
I fully support boycotts on unsustainable palm oil products as well as their use as biofuel. But I believe a blanket ban on all palm oil is irrational.
What we need to do is break down the issue to determine how much of the problem is intrinsic to the commodity, and how much is down to how the commodity is produced.
In the case of palm oil, the bulk of the problem relates to the latter. Palm oil has been used by humans for at least 5,000 years, and is one of the most efficient crops known, with an incredibly broad range of applications. It's import from West Africa literally oiled the machines of the Industrial Revolution. The virgin kernel oil—a far cry from the ultra-fractionated, bleached palm oil made from the outer fruit that most importers have demanded for the last two decades—rivals virgin coconut oil as an almost perfect blend of healthy, saturated fatty acids, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and monounsaturated fats.
And palm oil is not the only commodity that's accelerated the deforestation of Southeast Asian rainforests. Demand for soy, maize, beef and timber are other big players.
What if citizens, ecologists, corporations, politicians and others could get together and find better ways of cultivating the palm oil 'supercrop'? And what if those who are overly dependent on its production could diversify and find alternate crops? Fortunately, these processes have already been initiated, and the rule book on what defines palm oil sustainability is being rewritten.
I was thrilled to find this kind of flexible, practical approach at the conference. The address given by the Malaysian Ministry of Health Deputy Director General would have delighted Western natural health advocates.
While type 2 diabetes rates in Malaysia have risen as fast as palm oil exports, politicians, bureaucrats, doctors and scientists, as well as environmental and consumer groups, are coming together to find solutions that will be sustainable for future generations.
I returned to Europe wondering if Southeast Asia's flexibility and rapid development could actually allow it to overtake the West in its implementation of natural healthcare.
Only time will tell what form of medicine becomes the norm in the coming decades. My view is that it's unlikely that new-to-nature pharmaceuticals will maintain their position as the first-line approach in medicine, and it may be that the West is slower than the East in making this incredibly necessary transition.
Robert Verkerk PhD is the executive and scientific director of the Alliance for Natural Health International, a consumer group that aims to protect our right to natural healthcare and nutrition.
information and to get involved, go to www.anh-usa.org, or check out ANH's Facebook and
1 Pol Arch Med Wewn, 2014; 124: 628-34