The value of medicinal and aromatic plant trade has increased three fold in the past 20 years, but traditional harvesting practices are being replaced by less sustainable alternatives.
A new report by IUCN partner organization, TRAFFIC, highlights the importance of the wild plant ingredients used in the everyday products that humans depend on for survival. Wild at Home: An overview of the harvest and trade in wild plant ingredients, demonstrates how sustainable wild plant harvesting can contribute to wider wildlife conservation goals and why global industry must adapt. The launch of the report coincides with FairWild Week 2018 - an annual online initiative supported by IUCN, celebrating the power of wild plants in our daily lives.
The use of wild plants is common in many household products, including herbal remedies, food, and drink, cosmetics, health supplements, and even furniture. Recent analysis by the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group found that only 7% of medicinal and aromatic plant species with well-documented uses have been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™— one in five was found to be threatened with extinction. Overharvest and resource mismanagement are two major contributors to species declines.
“Millions of people rely on wild plant collection both for their healthcare and for their livelihoods—from rural rosehip harvesters in Serbia to baobab fruit collectors in Zimbabwe, and the wide benefits of this harvesting are reaped by consumers across the world,” said Anastasiya Timoshyna, Co-Chair of the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group and co-author of the report. “But the industry utilising wild plant ingredients and consumers are paying far too little attention to ensuring plants are being traded responsibly.”
Of the roughly 30,000 plant species with documented medicinal or aromatic uses, approximately 3,000 are found in international trade. An estimated 60–90% of them are harvested from the wild. International trade in medicinal and aromatic plants has tripled in value between 1999-2015 and is now worth over US$3 billion. Growing and changing demand for wild plant ingredients often means that traditional sustainable harvesting practices are being replaced by more intensive and destructive alternatives. Examples of this include the use of heavy machinery in the harvesting of wild licorice root Glycyrrhiza spp., or the destructive collection of American Ginseng Panax quinquefolius.
If managed well, sustainable wild-harvesting and trade in plant ingredients could provide holistic management for other species and ecosystems, as well as multiple benefits to wild-harvesters and supply chains overall.
The FairWild Foundation is working with partners worldwide to improve the conservation, management and sustainable use of wild plants in trade, as well as the livelihoods of rural harvesters involved in wild collection. TRAFFIC has supported the development of the FairWild Standard, and now hosts the organisation’s Secretariat.
The FairWild Standard is being adopted across industry supply chains. Suppliers following the FairWild Standard adhere to strict rules regarding the sustainability of harvesting operations and ensuring the harvesters work in safe conditions and receive a fair and equitable payment for their produce. Products meeting the requirements are FairWild certified, and products containing them can bear the FairWild logo.
The Wild Dozen – key plants to look out for in your products
This list provides examples of species important in trade, wild-harvested, susceptible to harvesting pressure (e.g. overcollected, vulnerable to unsustainable trade), and/or that are in supply chains problematic for social inequality of trading practices.
- Frankincense: an aromatic resin used widely in the cosmetics industry, collected from wild trees in the genus Boswellia, mostly in the Horn of Africa.
- Shea butter: extracted from nuts of Vitellaria paradoxa trees in the Sahel region of Africa and exported in large amounts for the food (chocolate) and cosmetics industries.
- Jatamansi/spikenard: an essential oil extracted from the rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi an herbaceous plant that grows wild at high altitudes in the Himalayas. Used in aromatherapy and cosmetics, mostly in India, but also Europe and North America.
- Gum arabic: the resin of Acacia spp. trees used as a stabiliser in food products (E number E414), primarily collected from wild trees in the Sahel region of Africa, often in conflict or post-conflict regions.
- Goldenseal: an herbal medicine extracted from the roots of Hydrastis canadensis, an herbaceous plant that grows wild in south-eastern Canada and the eastern USA. Used domestically in large quantities and exported.
- Candelilla: a wax harvested from wild Euphorbia antisyphilitica in Mexico for use primarily in cosmetic products; the species is included in Appendix II of CITES.
- Pygeum: widely used as an herbal remedy for prostate problems, extracted from the bark of African cherry Prunus africana trees growing in moist forests in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar; the species is included in Appendix II of CITES.
- Argan oil: a highly valued oil used in cosmetics and cooking extracted from the nuts of the Argan tree Argania spinosa which grows in the wild only in Morocco.
- Baobab fruit: harvested from the African baobab Adansonia digitata a widespread savannah tree; marketed as a super-food and cosmetic ingredient.
- Devil’s claw: a herbal remedy used as an anti-inflammatory extracted from the roots of Harpagophytum procumbens a slow-growing plant from arid regions of southern Africa.
- Liquorice: large-scale trade in wild-harvested roots of Glycyrrhiza spp., threatened in parts of their range, are used for herbal products, traditional medicines, cosmetics, and food.
- Juniper: it exemplifies wild-harvest and trade in popular medicinal and aromatic plants in Europe (although Juniper also occurs in Asia and North America). Commercial wild collection in Europe is declining as people become increasingly urbanised but it is still an important source of income for some communities locally, particularly ethnic minorities such as the Roma. A lack of equitable trade practices means that collectors are often disadvantaged. Other species in Europe to look out for, are wild garlic, thyme, sage and oregano, as well as rosehips, Leopard’s Bane Arnica montana, elderberries, blueberries, lime flowers, and even dandelions and nettles!