It is estimated that somewhere between 60 and 90% of traded medicinal and aromatic plant species are wild harvested, according to non-profit organisation TRAFFIC. However, the sustainability of their harvest is relatively unknown, while the working conditions of the harvesters – often from poor, rural, marginalised, and minority communities – can be precarious.
There is already huge pressure on the planet’s natural resources: one in five of the world's plant species is endangered, threatened by habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive pests, disease, and climate change. However, rising demand for medicinal and aromatic plant species is putting further strain on these stretched resources. Between 2000 and 2020, there was a 75% increase in trade value and a 22% increase in trade volume of medicinal and aromatic plants, according to 2021 United Nations COMTRADE data.
What’s more, the global supply chain for aromatic and medicinal plants is vulnerable to illicit trade and far from transparent. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of all EU wildlife seizures in 2019 were of plant-derived medicinals, according to data from TRAFFIC.
‘Lack of awareness and interest’ in wild plant sustainability
A recent report called WildCheck: Assessing the risks and opportunities of trade in wild plant ingredients, co-authored by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), TRAFFIC, and other organisations, draws attention to these issues and offers solutions.
The report picks out 12 commonly wild-sourced ingredients dubbed the “Wild Dozen” – several of which are used by the nutraceutical industry, such as goldenseal, jatamansi, baobab, pygeum, and liquorice – and highlights the threats and opportunities they face.
The authors criticise companies for displaying a lack of interest in sustainable wild harvesting, even though their supply chains are directly threatened.
“For companies manufacturing and selling final products, [...] there is a lack of awareness of the extent to which their products depend on wild ingredients, and a lack of interest to demonstrate the sustainability of wild plant supply chains,” write the authors. “However, current risks related to the global decline in biodiversity and ecosystem services are a direct threat to the supply of wild plant ingredients.”
The authors cite a 2021 World Bank Report that estimates the collapse of select ecosystem services could result in the decline of global GDP to the tune of around $2.7 trillion annually by 2030.
Responsible sourcing of wild bioactives is ‘a great story to tell’ consumers
Supplement and nutraceutical brands may feel limited when it comes to communicating about sustainable sourcing, with limited space on packaging to add logos and claims. However, there is evidence of consumer appetite for sustainable nutraceutical and functional food and drink products.
In 2019, researchers from NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business found that sustainably marketed products were outpacing their conventional counterparts for growth across 36 different categories – including categories where botanical ingredients may be used, such as vitamins, energy drinks, and skincare products.
Voluntary certification is therefore an option for suppliers looking to provide extra reassurance to consumers about their ingredients. One certification scheme, FairWild, sets its standards according to the Convention on Biological Diversity and aims specifically to reduce the social and biological risks of wild resource harvesting.
Emily Robinson, project support officer at TRAFFIC, told Vitafoods Insights: “Sustainability and ethical trade of wild-harvested ingredients have suffered from a lack of attention across all industries and sectors. [...] However, responsible sourcing of these ingredients represents a massive opportunity for businesses – contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals, supporting wildlife conservation, and being able to tell great stories about their products to customers.”
Certified FairWild: Small but growing
While the number of FairWild certified ingredients is a drop in the ocean of the global botanical market, demand for certification is slowly rising. FairWild started with 10 certified companies in 2017 and counted 17 in September 2022. Most certified companies – 13 out of 17 – produce ingredients for the nutraceutical, food supplement, and health food sectors.
Certified companies, which collect wild plants and are audited every year, include Georgian supplier Geoflower for liquorice root and elderflower, Ghanaian company ORGIIS for baobab, and the Pingwu Shuijing TCM Cooperative in China for southern schisandra.
Around 10 firms are currently working towards certification, including Himalayan Bio Trade for jatamansi and gentian; Peruvian supplier Pebani, which works with local communities in the Amazon to source medicinal plants such as cat’s claw; and Afrigetics Botanicals, which has conducted a risk assessment for umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides) and will undergo a full audit if there is market demand.
Consumer-facing brands and traders that use wild-sourced ingredients can also become FairWild registered, which allows them to make on-pack sustainable claims. UK baobab brand Aduna, tea brand Pukka, and Neals Yard Remedies are examples.
Emily King, business engagement officer at FairWild, said its work also involves providing B2B support to suppliers and there are many companies it cannot name.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes!” she said.
Could cultivation of botanicals be a solution?
While certification of wild-harvested ingredients is a solution for a more sustainable supply chain, wild resources may simply not be sufficient to cover growing demand. In certain cases of overexploitation, should suppliers invest in cultivation or conduct research to see if cultivation is possible?
This is already the case for some botanicals. US-headquartered Natreon recently launched a cultivation programme for ashwagandha, while HG&H did so for sceletium and Spain’s Nektium did so for rhodiola.
However, some industry commentators have warned that this may impact the properties and potency of their bioactive compounds.
David Foreman, herbalist and industry consultant, told this publication previously: “The question I posed to [...] companies, is this: ‘Since these [plants] are not being grown in the same soils or wider environments, will their phytochemical and nutritional profiles be the same as the wild-grown botanicals?’ No [company] could answer my question – but I was told this would be examined.”
Some research has been done in this field. One 2020 study studied the composition of wild and cultivated plants of the same genotype, Centaurea raphanina spp. mixta, a perennial plant native to Greece.
The researchers found that the wild plants contained more phenols, less sucrose and glucose, and had higher antimicrobial activity than the cultivated ones. The study authors concluded that, on the one hand, individuals could get the desired level of nutrients by consuming smaller quantities of the wild plants; on the other hand, commercial cultivation could make the plant more easily available and affordable to consumers without endangering agrobiodiversity.
Nevertheless, results vary depending on the plant species. A 2012 study on jatamansi found a “higher quantum of antioxidant phytochemicals in samples of planted source, thereby suggesting possibilities of greater returns from commercial cultivation of the species”.
Wild or cultivated? Deciding on a case-by-case basis
From a sustainability perspective, the answer differs for each wild plant as it depends on the circumstances of the harvest, according to Robinson from TRAFFIC and FairWild.
“For example, goldenseal is both wild harvested and cultivated. But based on the findings of the WildCheck report, as well as trade restrictions related to [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] CITES, we recommend that only cultivated goldenseal is purchased,” she said.
“Additionally, in cases such as shea, the lines between cultivated and wild are not so clear – for example, with some trees selectively protected on farmland – and harvests could benefit from additional trees being planted.
“Furthermore, this question only considers biological risk and doesn’t touch on social implications, where the answer becomes more nuanced. The ingredients and their harvest are critical to a lot of people’s livelihoods, so a direct swap to cultivation could have broader implications on livelihoods and culture.”