- Wild-harvested plants seldom come from large, corporate operations. The first point in the supply chain tends to be local harvesters. Around 3,000 medicinal and aromatic plant species are traded internationally and anywhere from 60% to 90% of these are collected from the wild, according to a new report by the non-profit TRAFFIC.
- The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have increased demand for herbal remedies, some containing plant species that already face pressures due to over-harvesting.
- Plant and animal parts and products intended for medicinal use comprised 23% of all seizures of illicit trade items reported by EU member states in 2018 — the largest reported category.
- TRAFFIC is encouraging individuals to look for the wild plant ingredients in products and companies to use voluntary market mechanisms, such as the FairWild Standard, to help with providing evidence of sustainable and equitable trade.
Wild plants are hidden in your pantry. Mixed into herbal medicines, teas, aromatherapy oils, liquor and beauty products, wild-harvested plants are a multibillion-dollar industry. But with no labeling standard for the end products, these ingredients often fly under the radar.
“Not just consumers, but also companies often have no idea that there are some special ingredients coming from the wild and going through their supply chains,” Anastasiya Timoshyna, senior program coordinator on sustainable trade for the nonprofit TRAFFIC and co-chair of the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, told Mongabay.
According to “The Invisible Trade: Wild plants and you in the time of COVID-19”, a new report by TRAFFIC, around 3,000 medicinal and aromatic plant species are traded internationally. Anywhere from 60% to 90% of these are collected from the wild. The COVID-19 pandemic may be increasing demand for herbal remedies, some with wild plant ingredients under pressure from unsustainable harvesting.
In China traditional Chinese medicine formulas have been officially prescribed by doctors to treat COVID-19. These formulas contain as many as 151 plant ingredients. One popular ingredient is licorice root (Glycyrrhiza spp.), a protected species in parts of China. It can be cultivated, but for medicine, it typically comes from the wild in large quantities.
“Humankind’s dependence on wild plants for essential health care and well-being has never been more apparent than during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Timoshyna said in a statement. “However, there is a complete lack of attention to the issues of sustainability in wild plant supplies.”
Wild-harvested plants seldom come from large, corporate operations. The first point in the supply chain tends to be local harvesters. These individuals sell to traders, sometimes informally, at low costs. The plants then make their way to distributors, often through a series of middlemen, who export to larger companies and brands.
“Often, indigenous communities are the world’s wild collectors, with this incredible knowledge of how to harvest sustainably, how to maintain those populations of plants, and how to do it safely, but they are marginalized socially and economically,” Sebastian Pole, co-founder and master herbsmith of Pukka Herbs, told Mongabay.
Income from wild-harvested herbs is a considerable part of the livelihoods of people in some areas. The harvest of devil’s claw (Harpagophytum spp.), a herb used to treat arthritis, is a major part of or the sole source of income for an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 harvesters in Namibia. In the mountains of Nepal, a study examining the role of wild harvesting in lifting families out of poverty found that the commercial harvesting of herbs contributed nearly 58% of total annual household incomes.
The international trade of many medicinal and aromatic plants is regulated under CITES. Exporters wishing to sell plants internationally must apply for a permit from their government. National authorities decide whether the plant can be harvested sustainably and following the law or if the trade of that plant would be detrimental to the species. Around 800 medicinal and aromatic plants are currently listed in CITES Appendix II, meaning their trade is regulated and monitored to ensure the plant is harvested sustainably.
Medicinal and aromatic plants are more difficult to regulate than animals or large timber logs, which are easier to mark and identify. Wild plants are commonly traded in semi-processed forms. Customs officials may open a bag to find leaves, powder or wax and they need to be trained to identify these things.
Some countries lack the funding or capacity to carefully monitor and regulate trade. A permit needs to be based on management on the ground, Timoshyna says, and a lot of source countries lack the capacity to make sustainability assessments for permits.
Plant and animal parts and products intended for medicinal use comprised 23% of all seizures of illicit trade items reported by EU member states in 2018 — the largest reported category. Authorities seized 260,000 plant-derived medicinal items, including many CITES Appendix II-listed species such as aloe (Aloe maculata), orchids, and African cherry (Prunus africana). These breaches of the law may be linked to lack of understanding of CITES requirements along trade chains, and/or lack of capacities rather than intentional violations of CITES regulations, Timoshyna says.
To help with providing evidence of sustainable and equitable trade, TRAFFIC is encouraging companies to use voluntary market mechanisms, such as the FairWild Standard. Companies can use the FairWild certification to alert customers that the wild plant ingredients in their products have met a set of standards related to sustainable wild harvesting as well as a fair, legal and equitable sharing of resources. This label functions much like the more widely known Organic, FairTrade or Rainforest Alliance certifications.
“FairWild is a fantastic example of some of the best minds in conservation and sustainable business coming together,” Pole of Pukka Herbs said. “If you’ve got a worldview where you believe that we can live sustainably on the planet, FairWild really promotes those values and sort of does the hard work for you as a consumer.”
Pukka Herbs is one of the many companies using the FairWild voluntary certification to ensure that consumers know the wild plants in their products were harvested responsibly. They use FairWild certified licorice from Kazakhstan, Georgia and Spain; nettles and rosehips from Bulgaria; and limeflower from Bosnia.
Pukka’s first FairWild project in Asia was established in the Western Ghats of India to create Triphala, a popular Ayurvedic formula. It’s a very tough standard to implement in a new value chain, Pole says. The project took four or five years of hard work to implement.
Another of Pukka Herbs’ flagship FairWild products comes from the bibhitaki tree (Terminalia bellirica) in India. Nuts and bark from this hardwood tree are harvested for their medicinal properties, but the tree is also the primary nesting habitat for the great pied hornbill (Buceros bicornis). As part of their certification process, Pukka Herbs trained locals to safely climb the tree and harvest nuts rather than cut the tree for bark or firewood. This not only protects the hornbill, which mates for life and breeds in the branches, but also means the tree is worth more over its lifetime to the harvesters — an all-around win.
“Companies have got to invest the time and the money to know where their ingredients come from, to know how the people that are collecting them are treated and paid, and to know the impact that harvesting those ingredients is having on the indigenous population of plants, as well as other plants that might get trampled along the way,” Pole said.
The TRAFFIC report includes a “wild dozen” list of 12 commonly wild-harvested plants in trade. These species are “flagships of opportunities and challenges of wild-sourcing” the report says. Some of the wild dozen are already managed to avoid over-harvesting and to ensure equitable trade, while others need attention now or will need more management as the demand grows. These ingredients are a good place for interested consumers to start examining the wild provenance of the plants in their pantry.
The 12 flagship species include:
- Frankincense resin and oil (Boswellia spp.)
- Shea butter (Vitellaria paradoxa)
- Jatamansi/Spikenard oil (Nardostachys jatamansi)
- Gum arabic resin or E414 (Acacia spp.)
- Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis)
- Candelilla wax (Euphorbia antisyphilitica)
- Pygeum bark (Prunus africana)
- Argan oil (Argania spinosa)
- Baobab fruit (Adansonia digitata)
- Devil’s claw root (Harpagophytum procumbens)
- Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza spp.)
- Juniper (Juniperus communis)
TRAFFIC urges consumers to look for the wild-harvested plants in their products, companies to proactively review their supply chains, countries to implement effective regulations, and the World Health Organization to finalize and adopt the WHO/WWF/IUCN/TRAFFIC Guidelines on Conservation of Medicinal Plants.
Timoshyna, A., Ke, Z., Yang, Y., Ling, X., Leaman, D. (2020). The Invisible Trade: Wild plants and you in the times of COVID-19 and the essential journey towards sustainability. Published by TRAFFIC, Cambridge, U.K.
Banner image of the Community Forest User Group in Mugu, Nepal courtesy of ANSAB.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_
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