By Susan Curtis
The increasing demand for wild plants as ingredients for food, cosmetics, wellbeing and medicinal products poses major ecological and social challenges. Many of the herbs and essential oils we love and use – from juniper and liquorice to elderberry and frankincense – are collected from the wild. In fact it is estimated that around 85% of medicinal and aromatic (MAP) plant species used in herbal medicine are gathered from the wild.
According to the World Health Organisation, 65-85% of the world’s population relies on herbal medicines to meet its health needs. This results in many thousands of tons of wild plants being traded annually and the pressure on potentially vulnerable plant species can endanger local ecosystems and plant stocks.
Collectors of wild plants often belong to the poorest social groups in the countries of origin. As a result of the growing interest in medicinal and aromatic plants, new economic opportunities are opening up for rural populations. With many of the MAPs gathered from the wild, collection and sale is providing a complementary source of cash for many extremely poor rural households.
However, despite the fact that the products collected can have very high value when they appear in the shops, the collectors typically receive only a small share of the final price.
Businesses sourcing plants gathered from the wild need to take these two important factors into account every step of the way: the sustainability of the ecosystems and plants they are collecting, and ensuring they are paying a fair price to the collectors.
Here’s my advice after working with wild ingredient distributors for 25 years:
• It’s all about people. Work on building and maintaining relationships with everybody involved: farmers, collectors, consultants, academics, certifiers, government officials, traders. Constantly strive to improve things for the community and for them to benefit from the added value your business brings. With our Kenyan frankincense, for example, it’s very important for us that the essential oil is distilled in Kenya, though traditionally most frankincense from Africa is imported as resin and distilled in France.
• You have to have the support and engagement of your company, from board level to the technical team to grassroots, both ethically and financially. Sustainable and ethical sourcing is likely to be harder work and more expensive, although the potential rewards can definitely offset the cost of ingredients and raw materials.
• Focus on sustainable solutions to the problems you encounter. Challenges will arise, especially if sourcing plants from developing countries. Bureaucracy can be frustrating and plants are subject to fluctuations in growing conditions and climate changes. Poor communities may well need help financially, with inspection or accreditation, and with technical expertise in marketing and business development.
• Always work towards external accreditation and standards – it’s better for the community and for the company. Most organic certifiers have a set of standards that includes wild harvested plants. The FairWild scheme, established in 2008, promotes the sustainable use of wild-collected ingredients with a fair deal for all those involved throughout the supply chain. We were very proud to include the first FairWild certified frankincense oil in our latest frankincense cream, and the interest it has generated has been very encouraging.
• Be in it for the long term. Once you have developed a relationship with a community, nurture it. This helps both you and them: the community needs to know this is an ongoing commitment and have an annual forecast, and the company will benefit if products become scarce when the community does everything it can to make sure you secure the ingredients you need.
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