‘We’ve lost a lot of information that was fundamental to our survival.’ Paul Stamets, Mycologist
Three months into my last relationship I made the decision to stop taking the contraceptive pill. After one too many ‘accidents’ resulting in me having to take the morning after pill-version that resulted in me developing the same symptoms that had made me want to quit the pill in the first place, my ex- boyfriend and I sat in his bedroom attempting to research the synthetic hormones Levonorgestrel (the morning after pill) and cyproterone acetate. It was hard, despite most people assuming one can find all the information ever collected by individuals on the internet there was no real information out there regarding Levonorgestrel - the chemical created as a synthetic copy of the naturally occurring female sex hormone progesterone. I wanted to know what natural matter it had been derived from and thus what I was putting into my body. In fact, looking at the consumer fact sheet regarding Levonorgestrel on the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia’s website, there was nothing. There was no consumer factsheet available. (source: https://www.psa.org.au/wpfb-file/130220_ec_factsheet_consumers_v1-0-pdf)
To simplify what I was looking for to the extreme: Many synthetic hormones or prescription drugs are created by isolating chemical compounds from the rest of the base matter. This drug Synthesis is defined as
“ A building up, putting together, composition. In chemistry, the formation of compounds by the union of simpler compounds or elements.” (source: drugs.com). Levonorgestrel is described as a synthetic derivative from the natural female sex hormone, progesterone. However I was unable to find sources that would describe exactly where the chemical compounds to create the synthetic component had been taken from. There are plants and animals/animal excretions (such as eggs) that contain progesterone, and it would seem that the chemical compounds were isolated from some of these things, but finding something like a commonly used patent proved near impossible. Chemical synthesis occurs by careful selection of chemical compounds, reactors and reagents, chemists select and isolate these agents in regard to their research target (healthcare, pharmaceuticals, industrial innovations) and then use reacting vessels or other methods to meld ingredients together and create eventual products with the correct chemical yield for drug and/or chemical synthesis.
Chemical synthesis involves the idea that the effects of chemical reactions can be reliably reproducible in a laboratory. That a chemical yield will turn out the reliably similar to be defined as the correct chemical or eventual ingredient used in a pharmaceutical drug.
I wanted to know what had been used to create that synthetic hormone that operated similarly to progesterone: Unfortunately the amount of research required to eventually unearth the exact chemical components that were isolated to create the synthetic version of progesterone cannot be undertaken by someone without a tertiary science background - or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Even the website chemical spider couldn’t guide me to the places a pharmaceutical chemist might take their compounds from. To have a patent released, or articles released by chemists and companies creating this drug certainly seems like a much fairer way to circulate information. On occasion these patents and proposed patents are released to the public (read: http://www.google.com/patents/WO2012110947A1?cl=en). However, there is still a glaring lack of information regarding plant constituents available for those who would like to use certain medications without the side effects of hormonal imbalance.
My personal reasoning behind wanting to quit the pill had nothing to do with wanting to have a baby. I’m twenty-three years old. I simply wanted to find a contraceptive that was backed up with information gleaned according to modern scientific standards, but that did not cause hormonal imbalance, mood swings, extreme depression, osteoporosis or other health issues. I realised that contraceptives - not just barrier methods - had been around forever: There are herbs, roots and recipes for teas that can act as non-hormonal contraceptives and others that can stimulate menstrual bleeding (known as emmenagogues). Even though I was not able to find out what famed scientist Herschel Smith synthesized Levonorgestrel from, I was able to find out the names of several abortive herbs, along with emmenagogues and sterility-promoters.
My ex-boyfriend and I sat in his bedroom, on his clunky old laptop and typed variations on every keyword or sentence between ‘what chemical compounds were isolated to create levonorgestrel?’ to, ‘what are natural/herbal/plant-based/non-hormonal methods of birth control?’.
The irritating thing about this research and the place we reached was, not only could we not find out what was in Levonorgestrel, we couldn’t even find dosage amounts or any information about herbal methods of contraception backed up by medical science or journal articles that we felt we could trust. I was sick to death of chemically-induced depression, my mental health was not in a state where I could risk pregnancy, or the physical and mental stress of continuing to take my pill any longer.
In terms of herbalism there has apparently been positive research on the effects of interaction between plant constituents. Plant constituents and the use of whole plants and mixtures of whole plants is a method used in traditional medicine. The research regarding plant constituents is at least enough to suggest that the area needs to be researched further according to modern standards of science: Often, research suggests that greater pharmacokinetic interactions occur when a whole plant -along with other whole plants the phytochemical compounds are complimentary toward - the desired medicinal effect, is used. There have been studies that suggest the absorption of these symbiotic holistic chemical compounds can be faster and more effective. Yet there is still a lack of research regarding plant constituents. Gilbert, Willcox, Wright and Rasoanaivo state the following:
“More clinical research is needed on all types of interaction between plant constituents. This could include clinical trials of combinations of pure compounds (such as artemisinin + curcumin + piperine) and of combinations of herbal remedies (such as Artemisia annua leaves + Curcuma longa root + Piper nigumseeds). The former may enhance the activity of existing pharmaceutical preparations, and the latter may improve the effectiveness of existing herbal remedies for use in remote areas where modern drugs are unavailable.” (SOURCE: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3059462/)
I was shocked upon finding that the information regarding what the medicines I put into my body had been synthesized from was not easily researchable information. Surely, I thought, any website describing the effects and side-effects, as well as any regular GP should know this and be able to inform me. Yet, western medicine and issues behind prescription drugs and the companies that make them has been a much debated issue in the media for decades.
When a young woman goes to her friends, family, GP and any relevant literature to find out about birth control she is not given a large textbook or documentary describing the ingredients, effects of, and way a particular hormone treatment will uptake in her body. Many GP’s barely give out any information and it is left to the often limited research skills (and further limited through the lack of pharmaceutical information) of the woman in question to understand what is happening if she suddenly finds herself in a health or mood-related predicament.
Every day I sign into my Facebook account and see articles and updates shared by young women my age who can no longer, for various reasons of physical and mental health, use hormonal methods of birth control. Not only that but as more research is released backing up their arguments (the pill causes osteoporosis, it causes thyroid malfunction, antibiotics can lead to further health problems down the track, antibiotics in our food cause illness - these are just some of the issues raised in the literature regarding health, food and medicine in the western world) the anti-hormone, and anti-pharmaceutical trend rises.
In accordance with this trend some international non-government organisations are answering the call and beginning to draw up policies that would design task forces and the distribution of resources to research traditional, alternative and complementary medicines (also known by the acronym ‘TCAM’).
In 2013 the World Health Organisation released a seventeen-chapter bulletin detailing the rising global interest in Herbal Medicine Research relevant to global health. The manifesto was titled, ‘Traditional, complementary and alternative medicine: policy and public health perspectives
Charlie Changli Xue” (source: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/1/07-046458/en/)
The World Health Organisation addressed the beginning of the manifesto as such: “Health care can broadly be divided into modern (conventional, orthodox, Western or allopathic) and traditional (indigenous, complementary, alternative or integrative). The former is clearly defined, with minor regional variations in its underlying philosophy and clinical methods. In modern medicine, knowledge expansion is achieved through scientific research, which can involve global collaboration and commitment. Such research is well supported financially by industry, governments and philanthropic organizations. This is in sharp contrast to the situation with TCAM.”
As mentioned above in this essay it’s not just the young women on my Facebook feed who are desperate to find holistic medicines based on plant constituents, the scientists studying the effects of these medicines also applaud the results they have seen and would like to see the work investigated further. However, there are many issues of the social, economic and political kinds that would arise if research in this area were to become popularised:
In the same manifesto the World Health Organisation states: “Research efforts in Western countries have been largely concerned with the quality, safety and efficacy of only certain forms of TCAM, such as herbal medicine and acupuncture. Such a focus on herbal medicine may be due to the perceived higher level of risk associated with its practice and also because of its potential for exploitation in drug discovery.”
Exploitation could become an enormous issue regarding holistic medicines. Already in some Indigenous communities in the world there is a rising concern surrounding the idea of ‘medicine pirates’ - those who hunt for traditional medicines, such as Maca, take the medicines and sell them on without passing profit on to the traditional owners. Pharmaceutical companies with enormous monopolies could find the whole plants containing these sought after chemicals and continue to extract them in the same way they have been for decades now, quickly pushing TCAM out of the way and reducing the chance for plant constituents to find a foothold in a market or research niche in any capacity.
We have seen issues of exploitation occur already in food markets when certain foods viewed as sources of holistic health become popularised in the Western World. After being popularised as a gluten-free ‘superfood’ the grain quinoa became so expensive that the Bolivian farmers growing the food could not afford to eat it. This exploitation is common especially in regards to Indigenous food sources. Upon discovery by colonisers in Australia the root native vegetable ‘Murnong’ was eaten to extinction by grazing cattle and people alike.
Perhaps for herbal remedies or plant constituents to become hormonal replacements or more popularised as medicinal replacements, research teams in certain areas would have to focus on standardised foods/herbs/etc that are native to the area they are researching in in order to prevent this kind of exploitation and over-farming of one popularised product or plant discovered. A kind of jurisdiction may reduce exploitation, although considering the power of the market as a force for global supply and demand one only wonders how long the anti-exploitation red tape could be kept in place.
Supply and demand, this is the root of the issue of ‘trending’ when combined with sensationalist media and articles created in order to garner the most clicks online. The way our neoliberal western word, controlled by the power of a competitive market, operates involves systematic exploitation of certain resources due to the nature of the dispersal of information. Sensationalist media and the next ‘grand innovation’ culminate in exploitation and overuse. Often resulting in the decimation of peoples or resources.
Culturally normative behaviour and the dispersal of information through media sources, private and government-run schools, and peer-to-peer knowledge, claim the foundation of what we view as truths in modern methods. We would assume that our schools teach unbiased information, but curriculum is dependent on government agendas. Look at the recently elected Liberal Party policy to entrench coding more deeply into public curriculum. Personally, I have no issues with coding and I do believe the internet creates jobs and strengthens the economy. Yet, it is a fair example of the will of governments to innovate by looking at what is trending in the global political economy, rather than by also committing to bringing often neglected areas of research - i.e. research that may need to be looked at once more according to modern standards - up to scratch..
The imbalanced power positions regarding those who create and produce what becomes widely acknowledged information tend to produce levels of inequality in our micro worlds. One could cite the power of the market as the source of this disruption of misinformation - or rather, biased information. Monopolies and market and advertising control in a neoliberalist regime excuse the loss of holistic knowledge and the practice of passing this on. The market demand for easy, pre-prepared birth control during the 1960’s may have outweighed the necessity to provide information regarding how these drugs were synthesised and then, overtaken the necessity to continue to circulate holistic methods of birth control. These are worlds and societal norms that were created long before I was born, yet these macro decisions now have a tangible effect on my micro and personal life, and the lives of the many women I know who do not recognise that there are other options available to them should they look for and find the research that would lead them in the right direction, to the right non-hormonal method of contraception. Unfortunately, my generation represents a group of young women entrenched into ‘normalised’ untruths regarding our bodies and our available options created through the decision-making processes of people who no longer exist in our time, or physical space. These decisions were not made in my bedroom in Preston, Melbourne 2016. They were made decades ago, by pharmaceutical companies with the means to use their own advertising to overshadow any other applicable options regarding birth control methods. As a result, I become like a half-dried piece of pottery cracked against a wall: The wet, still malleable parts of my body choose to fuse to the brickwork because I am tired, overworked, underpaid, don’t have enough time to do my own research and thus take the quickest, easiest route. There is structure in things that have already been built, already proven, and as humans we lean into mob mentality with a skillful ease. Yet with innovative modern standards of research, the house of holistic remedies and other facets of information regarding medicines and contraceptives could be built, and then added into our culturally normative structure, even in the Western World.
An interesting note regarding liberalism is that so often liberalism and liberal ideals are marketed by the people and politicians who believe in them as being so different in effect to communism or capitalism. U.S politicians would use Stalin’s regime to an effect so as not to further any socialist-minded policies (see: Controversy surrounding the Obamacare act), while simultaneously brushing under the rug the reality that while the ‘work hard and you will succeed’ mentality of liberalism and the free market is so often proved wrong, these politicians do not believe that liberalism shares those ‘good on paper/awful in execution’ characteristics of socialism or communism. Nor do many of these liberally-minded politicians, admit the defeat of free-market ideology even in the face of the climate change crisis so clearly the effect of a deregulated market.
So, we come to understand this as unfair: What Political economists would describe as the ‘compression of time and space’ - where my no longer wanting to use birth control resulted in research that led me to understand my choice to take birth control had, in the beginning, stemmed from poor information with great circulation value.
Clearly the methods to reduce the circulation of poor-value information regarding health choices will not occur with the further deregulated market argued for by capitalist-enthusiasts. This would only spur a heightened click-through agenda regarding media, and leave journalistic integrity behind in the dust as nothing more than an arbitrary idea. Perhaps it would be wiser to suggest innovations in the areas of herbalism, Indigenous knowledge regarding plants and medicines and funding toward the employment of those who can test this knowledge in accordance with modern standards of science. There would be a need for legal red tape to ensure ethics, yet the introduction of new, innovative business models untouched by the current world creditors might eventually prove to be an invaluable bail-out option for future governments.
If we consider the reality that current governments do rely on businesses (known as ‘creditors’) willing to loan money, along with organisations like the World Bank, or other governments, in order to bail them out. Cuts to public funding are usually interrelated with growing deficits and the creditors that will eventually need to offer investments to governments to incite economic growth. Sometimes these creditors are world organisations like the World Bank, and sometimes they are privately-owned businesses that ask governments for incentives regarding their investment. Depending on the creditor an incentive toward investment could be anything from the re-aligning or removal of a trade law or protocol, or redistributing public funding in a way that will lead to sustained economic growth in that company’s interest.
This is the place where public spending toward innovation a failure to induce long-term innovation for future economic development loses out and becomes a short-term solution.
Our world government’s need to create long-term innovations looking toward sustainable business models and funding these so that future governments can accept bailout subsidies from more ethical businesses, i.e. without sacrificing environmental, Indigenous or proletariat needs. Our current Australian Liberal government is at a loss to provide such a long-term innovation solution: In December 2015 the Australian Senate Committee implored that all future governments create long-term innovation plans. Stating the following:
“In December 2015, the Senate Economics References Committee handed down its report on Australia's Innovation System.
It recommended that: (1) governments commit to stable and coherent arrangements for innovation policies based on a long-term strategic framework and lift investment in R&D to 3 per cent of GDP;
(2) an independent government agency be established to administer and coordinate innovation system policies and programs across the whole of government;
(3) governments, as part of their long-term innovation strategy address structure and strategic barriers that inhibit innovation, including the free flow of knowledge between universities and business, increasing the R&D workforce and providing long-term predictable public funding;
(4) federal, state and territory governments work collaboratively to support local and regional innovation ecosystems;
(5) the education system be a central focus of the long-term innovation strategy, acknowledging the importance between STEM subjects and the humanities, social sciences and creative industries.”
However, the Turnbull government’s new innovation plan is only appropriate for the next four years.
If these companies are invested in and their product is ethically aligned with reducing carbon emissions and creating sustainable technology - given success - these companies can eventually become the creditors to governments in the future and trade in ethical agreement. A regulated partnership would involve governments investing in green, sustainable technology. A roundabout situation. Reducing the need for investment and bail-outs from neo-liberalist corporations.
Government investments in science and arts can eventuate in an investment in the future of the government and the turning around of neoliberal society and the global economic crisis. When governments invest in Sciences and Arts they are creating the thinkers and problem-solvers of tomorrow. Likewise, investments in ethical business models that work with, rather than against or as a competitor of, the environment the way big pharmaceutical companies often do when extracting, purifying and mass-producing synthetic medicines gleaned from unknown sources, could solve enormous issues in the distribution of western medicine, medical knowledge, and even point to discrepancies and glaring issues that have been present in these fields for decades - Such as, why are women still being prescribed anti-acne medication as birth-control, and how are these medications really affecting us?
“If you look on the fungal genome as being soldier candidates protecting the U.S. as our host defense, not only for the ecosystem but for our population... we should be saving our old-growth forests as a matter of national defense.” - Paul Stamets, ‘How Mushrooms Can Save the World, Ted x.
The re-alignment of informing the public body about the sources of their foods and medicine could be helpful in redistributing information regarding the importance of biodiversity. We can tell people to drive less on weekends as many times as possible, to buy local, to stop eating meat or shopping at this or that clothing store, but a reconciliation between the mind and lifestyle regarding the global need for biodiversity as a matter of global health and food security may drive public perception toward finally approving the need for innovation in the area of TCAM or ‘natural’ medicines.