If it is important for humans to continue to exist, then everyone really needs to be concerned with biodiversity conservation, and loss of habitat, and loss of roaming areas for big mammals, and loss of pollinators, and loss of plants the pollinators need. All of this is spinning out of control; meanwhile, people are just watching their television sets and their hand held devices and playing games while the whole thing unravels.” — Josef Brinckmann
Sixty thousand plant species are said to be used for medicinal purposes and experts estimate that 4-6000 species trade internationally (The Kew Royal Botanical Garden has a fantastic website providing an in depth exploration of the State of the World’s Plants). Most of these species come from the wild, harvested by wild collectors who make pennies for their labor. One in five plants is believed to be threatened by over-harvesting and habitat loss. And, as younger generations move to the cities, the traditional knowledge of these plants and harvesting techniques is being lost.
Efforts are being made to cultivate more medicinal plants, yet cultivation isn’t a solution. Many are difficult to cultivate. More importantly, wild collection is an important source of income for marginal communities and a way of generating livelihoods that keep wild places – and traditional cultures – intact.
I recently spent 6 months in India following medicinal plants through the supply chain. I was shocked to discover how little awareness or concern companies and consumers seem to have about the sustainability of the plants on which the entire Ayurveda industry depends. Ninety percent of the plants in this industry are said to come from the wild. Individuals in charge of sourcing for most companies said they face shortages daily. Yet, besides isolated efforts by individual companies, there is no sustained effort by the industry overall to address the sustainability of these plant populations.
This is just one country – but it is one of the most populous in the world, and Ayurvedic products are growing in popularity in India and around the world. Over-harvesting, land-use change, and climate change are the major drivers contributing to the decline of wild plant resources and a concurrent decline in biological diversity around the world. This not only impacts the supply of these medicinal plants. Maintaining healthy and diverse plant populations is crucial to ensuring the overall health of the planet, which in turn is the most sustainable way of ensuring the human health.
“As herbalism becomes popular again, nothing could be worse than our trying to promote awareness around using plants and to then harm the earth in that process. That would be an oxymoron.” — Sebastian Pole
A handful of companies are taking the lead in addressing the issues of cultural, economic and ecological sustainability inherent in wild collection. They are grappling with a range of challenges including: dwindling plant resources; the limits of organic certification as a standard for wild collected materials; younger generations no longer interested in the difficult work of wild collection, leading both to a decline in labor as well as a loss in the traditional knowledge of their local ecosystems; and the increasing impacts of climate change which is disrupting the life cycle of different species, which in turn impacts harvesting cycles, subsistence economies and more.
These issues are far larger than what these companies can tackle on their own. As consumers, we can help by letting the companies we buy products from – whether herbal medicine, or herbal tea, or cosmetics made with plants – know we care about sustainability of the plants. Let them know we are paying attention to how they address these issues. Start by asking whether the plants they use are wild collected or cultivated. For herbs bought on the open market through distributors, companies likely won’t know the answer. If they say that they do, ask how they know. Ask what steps are being taken to ensure the sustainability of the collection practices and what certifications they support.
While a key strategy in reducing declining plant resources, cultivation does not offer a long-term sustainable solution to wild collection. Bringing plants into cultivation removes the economic incentives for conservation and removes the only income for poor and/or rural people in some countries. Below are two programs working to bring accountability to wild collection around the world.
“I became interested in developing standards for wild collection because I became tired of seeing products in the market that claimed to be ‘ethically wildcrafted.’ If you call the company and you ask them, how did you verify that, by what standards? They didn’t have any evidence. Have those companies done a full survey of the collection area over many years? Do they have statistics on the regrowth? Do they know how much has been taken out? Do they know the effect on related species? Have they looked at it carefully? And in many cases, the answer to all of these questions is no.” — Josef Brinckmann
Note: Thanks to the FairWild Foundation for allowing us to share this video, which they produced.
The FairWild Standard is a best practice standard for sustainable wild harvesting and equitable fair trade. Created through a multi-stakeholder consultation process, FairWild was developed in response to the weakness of organic regulations for wild collected plants. Because these regulations are vague about the requirements of organic wild collection (in terms of sites etc.), traceability, and resource management protocols to ensure sustainability, there is a wide range in the quality of its implementation. FairWild, considered the gold standard of sustainability certifications, includes the following:
Over 20 companies are currently involved in production and trade of certified ingredients. More companies need to come on board for the standard to succeed. Find out more about FairWild and their worldwide efforts to raise awareness around cultural, economic and environmental sustainability of wild collected plants. Ask companies you support to consider adopting FairWild certified plants.
Coming soon: A SHP video on FairWild and its importance for sustainability.
In 2014, United Plant Savers [UpS] held a Ginseng Summit of Key Stakeholders that identified issues and obstacles to sustainable American ginseng markets and management in the Appalachian Region. They then decided to collaborate with USFWS on critical symposium to share not only important new research but to chart a way forward to ensure the future of ginseng and forest botanicals of Appalachia. The 2017 symposium focuses on current research on American ginseng and other forest botanicals, regulations and policy, and continues to foster key connections between those engaged in conservation, cultivation, and commerce of forest botanicals at private, state, tribal, and federal land ownership levels.
Along with Mountain Rose Herbs, UpS also launched the first Forest Grown Ginseng line of products including, root, leaf and whole plant tincture. This program helps combat illegal harvest and trade and works to build a more equitable supply chain for the plants, people, and culture of Appalachia.
We will continue to update this section with additional resources. For background on harvesting and wild collectors, see Wild Collection.