Rhodiola root is used as a traditional medicine all around the world; in the US, it has been one of the 40 top-selling herbal dietary supplements in mainstream retail outlets since 2014, according to the American Botanical Council.
The decision, made at a meeting in Panama City in November, will have far-reaching implications. What does this mean for the nutraceutical industry?
Rhodiola: A botanical with international appeal
Research suggests that rhodiola extract is useful for combating fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, and viral respiratory illnesses. However, the rise in demand has resulted in wild populations of rhodiola being overexploited, with far-reaching impacts for people and the planet.
Deborah Vorhies, CEO of FairWild, told Vitafoods Insights: “The species is harvested across Europe and Asia, notably in China, but also in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia, and elsewhere. It is sold mostly as raw material and semi-processed commodities to countries in Europe and North America as well as to Australia and South Korea, mostly through China.
“The growing demand by consumers in these countries is seen as the main driver of overharvesting. We know that demand for R. rosea is increasing at a significant rate, expected to grow at over 6% per annum over the period 2021 to 2028, and to reach an estimated market size of $2.6 billion by 2028.”
But she added: “Although the R. rosea occurs widely – in 29 countries – it occurs sparsely, grows slowly, [and] has low germination and dispersal rates. Add to this the destructive nature of the harvesting process, and one can see that overharvesting will have long-term deleterious impacts.
“All this to say it is clear why there is such concern, and why the proposal was made to, and adopted at, the recent CITES CoP.”
Measuring the impact on industry
What does this mean for nutraceutical companies who use rhodiola as an ingredient?
Jürgen Zimmermann, head of procurement, logistics and portfolio management at Finzelberg, a manufacturer of active botanical extracts, told Vitafoods Insights: “With the decision to include R. rosea in CITES Appendix II, we expect a strong reduction in uncontrolled wild collection of the plant, which will lead to significant implications on supply.”
But he maintained that alternative approaches were possible: “For around 20 years, Finzelberg has been working intensively on establishing a sustainable cultivation of R. rosea, as large-scale, commercially viable supply is essential in order to meet current and future demand and to protect wild stocks, which are severely endangered.”
He explained that Finzelberg’s cultivation takes place in western Europe. “Our goal from the start was to become independent from wild-collected R. rosea and to conserve natural resources,” he said.
“During this time, we have advanced and optimised our cultivation efforts to offer a consistently high-quality extract to our customers. […] In the seed selection, cultivation, harvest, and further processing, all of our efforts focus on the development and preservation of the valuable actives.
“Many factors play a decisive role in the quality of the raw material, such as the seeds, the young plants, the ideal cultivation location and cultivation duration, the many years of experience of the growers, efficient harvesting methods, and gentle processing.”
He also highlighted the importance of collaboration, adding: “After more than 10 years of commercial cultivation and harvesting, we know that quality results from teamwork and extensive know-how, as each step is performed in close consultation with our farmers and experts.”
Climate change and world events have implications for supply
Vorhies agreed there would be implications for supply, saying there was “bound to be a contraction”.
She added: “The compliance requirements for legal trade under CITES are onerous and require a substantial capacity on the part of suppliers as well as the relevant authorities. It might also have the impact of driving trade underground, and encouraging trade in illegally harvested product, with all the consumer risks that entails in terms of uncertified product. Prices may rise sharply, that might affect demand, particularly in times of economic hardship as currently being widely experienced.”
Asked what other factors might play a role, Zimmermann cited climate change and geopolitical developments, especially in Russia and China.
“Most of the commercially sold R. rosea in the Western world … comes today from wild harvesting in Siberia in Russia and [the] Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China,” he said. “This underlines the uncertainties in the current supply chain and the need to change the sources.
“Medium to long term, more sustainable cultivation efforts will help to mitigate supply chain disruptions for R. rosea in the short term and will reshape the structure of the supply chain.
“But let’s keep in mind, when we are talking about commercially sufficient volumes of product and not about small-scale trials, that such projects have very long lead times of up to 10 years, based on the characteristics and harvesting cycles of the plant.”
Targeting all points in the supply chain
Considering these points, is the CITES listing the most effective method for addressing rhodiola’s exploitation?
Vorhies said: “[T]he concern is real, and has been addressed through the usual intergovernmental means. However, we at FairWild might opine that this response as a trade measure fails to address market dynamics effectively, nor will it necessarily achieve its conservation objective, due to difficulties in managing compliance, and finally, it does not effectively take into account the economic and social impacts of such a measure on harvester communities.
“It might be that broader approaches to inject greater levels of sustainability throughout the R. rosea value chain, including (although not limited to) private sustainability certification schemes such as FairWild, are able to have greater impact through providing assurance as to sustainability of harvesting practice, proper management plans, traceability throughout chain of custody (helping to address adulteration and substitution issues), as well as the economic and social wellbeing of harvester communities.”
Asked whether FairWild encourages cultivation of the botanical to meet demand, Vorhies said: “The most important response should be to ensure sustainability of harvesting. Encouraging cultivation is, in our opinion, not an appropriate solution, as it often implies conversion of natural habitat. This is contrary to the desire to maintain conservation of the species, especially within its naturally occurring habitats and the related landscapes.”