As human beings evolve, we have become more and more removed from the very means that sustain us. And we’re suffering for it.
When agriculture took root 12,000 years ago, the way human beings lived and functioned as a society changed dramatically. The First Agricultural Revolution marked the transition from hunting and gathering to cultivating crops and animals, and the more reliable food supply led not only to the establishment of permanent settlements, but also a global population boom – from just five million people 10,000 years ago, to seven billion people today.
A stable food supply is the very foundation upon which civilisations are built, with all its defining features: the division of people into social and economic classes, complex division of labour, shared communication strategies, and administering of territories.
Then came The Second Agricultural Revolution. More efficient and comprehensive transportation and transport infrastructure were developed, which incentivised farmers to produce more food, which could now be supplied to people located further away and kept for longer, thanks to canning and pasteurisation. Meanwhile, advances in mechanisation and synthetic fertilisers increased the frequency that food was planted, harvested and processed.
This was the beginning of the rift between human beings and their food source.
I grew up in a time when Singapore kampongs and their backyard breeding of chickens were fast dying out. Occasionally, a relative would gift my father a live chicken in a cardboard box which he would take home to our HDB flat. My father would sharpen his knife, and in the bathroom, slaughter it with a single cut to the jugular, bleed it out, and after it had been bled out, boil it in a big pot. When it had cooled down, he would leave me — only eight years old then — to pluck and discard the feathers. Otherwise, every part of the carcass was used. We would mince up and bury the organs deep beneath our plants in their earthen pots, make stock of the bones, and the rest of the chicken would be eaten over one or two meals.
By contrast, my nephews and nieces today get queasy when confronted with the fact that the cling-wrapped pink deboned chicken thigh in the supermarket had once belonged to a living, breathing being. They prefer chicken nuggets, which, if you read the ingredients list on the packet, may not even contain any chicken at all.
Our disconnect from our sustenance marks the beginning of our disconnect from parts of ourselves; disconnects which have become so normalised, they are ingrained in our psyches.
A disconnected society
Thanks to the division of people into social and economic classes, society is becoming more stratified and less like a network that feeds into, and supports each other. Unlike the dwellers of the kampongs of my childhood who relied on each other for food, shelter, healthcare, and childcare in a network of reciprocal relationships, these same needs today and the means through which they are met, are treated like a list of individual transactions in a ledger.
And as ledgers go, the numbers must balance.
David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics was quoted by activist and historian Rebecca Solnit in her Facebook post,"...the explanation we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false." Before the invention of money, people did not barter in the way we see it today - a tit for tat, three tubs of rice for a live rooster - but gave and received in a gift economy, where giving and receiving is highly personal, and an integral part of relationship- and community-building.
In an article in The Atlantic he was quoted, "If you’re trading with someone you care about, you’ll inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account. Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift.”
"Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing transactions that never needed to be completed in the older system, but existed like a circulatory system in a body,” Solnit wrote in her book Faraway Nearby.
So money gets in our way of connecting with our communities and the means that keep us alive and thriving as a species — food, shelter, childcare, and healthcare.
Rainforests & medicine
Speaking of healthcare, I have been spending a good part of my last nearly two decades as a medical and healthcare communicator devising and executing campaigns for the latest treatments of diseases ranging from cancer to cardiovascular, metabolic and infectious diseases, and everything in between.
Innovation in therapeutics and medical devices is accelerating at a mind-boggling pace. Pharma companies are investing billions of dollars in research and development to produce more targeted cancer drugs, while striving to improve their safety profile to preserve the patient’s quality of life. There are now new classes of drugs to help manage chronic diseases such as atopic dermatitis that provide relief for those who suffer moderate to severe forms of the disease, especially where other forms of treatment had not worked for them.
But somehow in that drive to innovate more intelligent and more efficacious treatments, we have forgotten that the very chemical compounds that form the basis of medicine, and inspired billions of dollars of clinical research, were first found in humble plants in our rainforests.
We have become disconnected from the very living organism that for millennia has been giving us not only food and shelter, but medicine.
Today, numerous drug companies work with conservationists, native groups and governments to seek out and catalogue rainforest plants for their medicinal value, and extract and synthesise their bioactive compounds.
Some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from plants found in rainforests. According to the National Cancer Institute in the United States, more than two-thirds of all medicines that have been found to have cancer-fighting properties came from rainforest plants.
Take for example, oxindole, a chemical compound extracted from a tropical plant known as Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa), which is native to rainforests of the Amazon and Central and South America. Its roots have been used in traditional medicine among the ancient Incas of South America, for the treatment of infection, cancer, gastric ulcers, arthritis and other mild physical inflammations.
One of oxindole’s derivatives, sunitinib, is a tiny molecule used to treat gastrointestinal stromal tumours and renal cell carcinoma. Since 2006, it has been clinically approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), becoming the first anti-cancer drug simultaneously approved for two discrete types of cancer cells. It targets cancer cells by inhibiting their cellular signalling, arresting their growth.
And who knew that metformin - one of the earliest anti-diabetes drugs - had its origins in French lilac (Galega officinalis), a herbaceous plant native to Europe and the Middle East? In addition to helping to restore the body's response to insulin, the drug reduces macrovascular complications in type 2 diabetes mellitus without causing weight gain or hypoglycaemia, while carrying a low risk for pharmacological interactions with other drugs.
Closer to home, Malaysian company Medika Natura has developed SKF7™, a proprietary, standardised, botanical bio-active compound derived from Kacip Fatimah (Labisia pumila), a flowering perennial native to Southeast Asia, as an anti-obesity botanical drug. SKF7™ was cleared by the USFDA in 2020 as a New Dietary Ingredient (NDIN). Traditionally, the herb has been used to help women relieve postmenopausal symptoms and to facilitate or hasten the delivery process during childbirth.
Unfortunately, the high pace of deforestation and subsequent eradication of species is outpacing the rate at which scientists could learn about the plants' properties. Experts are projecting an extinction rate of more than 50 percent of all rainforest flora, fauna and animals up to the year 2100.
This has inspired me and my team mates at Bridges M&C to embark on a CSR campaign that can hopefully in some way restore and strengthen our connection to the rainforest, humankind’s very first medicine cabinet.