Organic. Farm Fresh. Locally grown. These are the hot topics of sustainability. We think about these issues when it comes to our food and our health – but what about our medicines?

Global supply chains produce the cures that sustain us, with multinational pharmaceutical companies drawing on a vast web of manufacturers, raw suppliers, and compounding facilities across the globe. Safety and verification has been the name of the game for those involved in manufacturing drugs, ensuring that what we put in our bodies are the actual pharmacologically active ingredients, following (for the most part) Good Manufacturing Practices. After the infamous Heparin supply incident, where Chinese manufacturers substituted a cheaper alternative to the active ingredient in the ubiquitous blood thinner leading to multiple deaths across the world, the pharmaceutical giants have been especially attentive to guaranteeing that the correct drug is in the pill. When Auret van Heerden discussed the controversy, he traced the supply chain down to the pig farmers in China that provide the raw heparin material from porcine intestines.

Making heparin from pig intestines

When I learned about the ultimate source of the blood thinner millions of patients use every day, I immediately thought – how sustainable are the pig farmers? If this were food, there would certainly be organic alternatives, rainforest friendly heparin, or even bird-friendly blood thinners. Yet the issues of environmental impacts of the Pharmaceutical supply chain remains largely under addressed. Pioneering programs such as Business for Social Responsibility’s Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Initiative seek to address these shortcomings, however hard data and awareness of the Carbon Footprint or conservation impacts of our medicines remains scarce. Does your monthly supply of Lipitor require more energy to manufacture than to power your home?  What do you think?

In the next post, I’ll dive deeper into a single drug case study and illuminate more on just how deep the rabbit hole goes…and why the pharmaceutical industry has so much to gain by addressing these issues.

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