A Maverick In The Medicinal Herb Industry

A one-on-one interview with Herbanext President Philip S. Cruz

By Rose T. Mueda
IFPT-CFOS, University of the Philippines in the Visayas

You are a well known multi-awarded figure in the field of Philippine aquaculture with a Most Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the University of the Philippines in the Visayas in 1997, and the prestigious The Outstanding Young Men Award (TOYM) in 2005. Why the sudden interest in the very distant field of herb farming and nutraceuticals?

Unknown to many, I was an agriculturist before becoming an aquaculturist. I spent my first 2 years of college at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) taking up B.S. Agriculture following the footsteps of my father. I also spent a lot of my childhood in our family farm in Davao City earning a few pesos selling my vegetable produce to my mother. Agriculture has always been in my blood and is my source of relaxation whenever the going gets tough in my work in aquaculture.

And your interest on nutraceuticals?

It is a quite a long story. While a student in UPLB in 1981-1983, I became fascinated with mushrooms after learning from my senior dorm mates how easy it was to grow on dried banana leaves. That interest was reawakened in 1994 when the shrimp industry, my business focus then, took a nosedive due to widespread disease problems leaving me with nothing much to do. I decided to take a formal training course on mushroom cultivation at TLRC. Here I learned about Ganoderma lucidum and its many medicinal properties. A mushroom with over 3,000 years history of safe use in China, very few in the Philippines knew about it then or understood why the Chinese regard it as the Herb of Longetivity or Immortality. I got my first strain of Ganoderma lucidum from an agricultural university in Thailand in 1995 and started growing it for my own use specifically to help me with my cholesterol and uric acid problem. It worked very well for me and I was able to remove all my medications in a year’s time. In 2001, my father-in- law was diagnosed with Stage 2 prostate cancer. Our family doctor agreed to incorporate ganoderma as an adjuvant treatment to hormone therapy. My father-in-law got his health back in less than a year of treatment and has remained free of prostate cancer ever since. Soon friends were asking me if I can also supply them the medicinal mushroom… this is how it all started and Herbanext Inc. was born in 2002.

It is a big leap from making a homemade health remedy to producing it commercially. How did you do this?

Sometime in the late 90s, an article came out in our local daily in Bacolod City about my work in aquaculture and my other “serious hobbies” which included cultivating ganoderma, growing earthworms, and raising honeybees. A medical doctor saw the news article and immediately contacted me. As it turned out, he knows very well the medicinal properties of Lingzhi (as it is known in Chinese) and has been looking for a local source for a long time already. To cut things short, we decided to collaborate in developing health products combining ganoderma with popular local herbs. My doctor friend took care of developing formulas in his clinic while I worked on the extraction and processing technology. My extensive experience in aquaculture engineering work helped me a lot in my task. Nearly five years later, we felt we had a very good product and asked for the assistance of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). Luckily I have a good track record with DOST after bagging the grand award of the First DOST-PCIERD research competition in 1997, so it did not take me much convincing for a loan assistance in this pioneering project. Making a good product is one part of the challenge and selling it of course is totally another matter. I am very fortunate that the expertise of my wife, Ruby, is on marketing.

So how exactly does ganoderma fit in your nutraceutical business?

With so much published research behind Ganoderma lucidum, and my encouraging personal experience with the use of this medicinal mushroom, I became fully convinced of the scientific validity of many of its traditional health applications and that its use should be promoted in the Philippines where the “herb” grows naturally. The use of ganoderma has a beneficial effect to practically every major human lifestyle ailment including diabetes, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, liver diseases, and cancer. It is for this reason that we have decided to make ganoderma a flagship product of our company and use it as a key ingredient in several of our food supplements combining it with the best of Philippine herbs such as ampalaya, banaba, luyang dilaw, sinta, takip kuhol, and tsaang gubat.

Herbal products and nutraceuticals are indeed popular in the Philippines, how does your product differ from those produced by other companies aside from your use of Ganoderma lucidum?

The common practice in the Philippines for capsulized food supplements is to use powdered herbs – leaves, bark, or roots. Our company’s thrust eversince has been to use extracts and to produce this locally. With the use of extracts, quality is better controlled, efficacy is greatly enhanced, and patient compliance is improved since the dosage and frequency of taking the supplements is considerably reduced. On the manufacturing side, we are also making great efforts to produce quality products. Already, we are GMP-certified and Halal-accredited. As a policy, we also avoid all forms of synthetic ingredients and non-organic products. We recognized that we are making very bold moves in the industry. But after closely studying global trends in nutraceuticals, we have come to the conclusion that it is the necessary direction if we are to flourish and be competitive in the export market. It is also worth noting that we produce ourselves almost all of our raw materials. We have a 10 hectare farm in Bago City, Negros Occidental, where we organically grow our herbs and have full traceability of the production process.

What is your vision for Herbanext?

It is clear that there is a global trend towards the use of nutraceuticals and functional foods. There is even a parallel movement towards the use of natural products for animal health. The Philippines has a rich diversity of botanical resources to offer the international market and should therefore be a major player in the natural products industry. Our vision in Herbanext is to pioneer the industrial-scale processing of herbal raw materials and standardized extracts in the Philippines. In so doing, we hope to be able to help raise the quality and efficacy of local food supplements, generate a new export industry that is environment friendly and carbon positive, and create a sustainable livelihood for marginalized rural communities through the organic farming of herbs. We are presently expanding our processing plant for raw botanical materials with the acquisition of new state-of-the-art processing equipment. We are also working on our farming protocols for Good Agriculture Practices and farm-based HACCP. We expect to start working with NGOs and organized farmer groups before the end of 2010 for the contract farming of medicinal herbs. Complementing all these efforts is the establishment of a training center, especially for the children of farmers, to teach them at an early age science-based technologies, environmental responsibility, and social and business values. Through this training center, we hope to help our next generation of small farmers be more productive and competitive, and be better prepared to cope with the demands of the global market.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle in the growth of Philippine herbal industry and what can be done about it?

This is only my personal opinion. I think we are lagging behind in science and technology, and this is not because of a lack of good scientists or researchers, but rather mainly due to the lack of technology adaption and commercialization. The primary focus of many of our scientists is to be able to publish their research work in a reputable journal for the benefit of the global scientific community. Ideally, these research output should be verified, followed through, refined, and packaged as a practical technology that can be adapted by industry. Sadly, this is a very weak link in the Philippines, so many of the scientific findings and discoveries end up in libraries and in some cases even benefit other competing industries in other countries whose governments are better equipped at incubating research technologies. We have to find a way to accelerate the flow of scientific information and technology to the stakeholders of the herbal industry otherwise we will end up offering uncompetitive if not inferior products in the global marketplace. To make sure that we get the most out of our government’s limited budget for R&D, we have to encourage our scientists to prioritize research based on the immediate needs of industry. To get the real picture, the academic and research community have to engage more actively with the private sector. Industry on the other hand should stop complaining on the lack of government R&D funds and should start investing on collaborative work with the academe and government research centers. These are actually the same problems that we have in the aquaculture industry and the agriculture industry as a whole.

Does aquaculture still have a part in what you are doing now?

The answer is a big YES! The Philippine marine waters are considered to be one of the most biologically diverse in the planet. With this biodiversity comes an extensive resource of aquatic flora and fauna that is a treasure trove of biologically active substances with potential health and medicinal benefits. Local scientists from Philippine research centers have already identified many commercially interesting novel substances from a variety of marine organisms ranging from cone shells to seaweeds and marine fungi. With no doubt, some of these would have to be farmed in marine waters or as we call it mariculture – a field I am very familiar with. Imagine the impact of this in coastal livelihood development and economic growth in the countryside! I am hoping that in the future Herbanext can contribute in the commercialization of new raw materials coming from the sea for the nutraceutical and functional food industries. While I have been spending a lot of my time with Herbanext lately, I remain active in the aquaculture industry and continue to render my service as I have done for the past 20 years, especially in the conduct of seminars and conferences such as this year’s 7th National Shrimp Congress in Bacolod City where I sat as the Congress Chair. I have to admit however that it is quite difficult for some of my colleagues in the aquaculture industry to appreciate my involvement with herbs and food supplements. But all of their uneasiness about my new venture vanishes when I tell them that Ganoderma lucidum, China’s herb of immortality, is now being studied as a substitute for antibiotics in aquaculture in Taiwan; that Indian scientists are finding novel botanical extracts to be promising antiviral agents against the dreaded White Spot Syndrome Virus in shrimp; and that extracts of many culinary herbs such as rosemary, garlic, and oregano are now being commercially used as antimicrobials and growth promotants in fish farming in Europe.

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