Pat Thomas discusses how we can meet the ever-increasing demand for herbal medicines in a sustainable and fair way.
I consume therefore I am… as the modern mantra goes.
People vary, of course, in how closely they stick to this mantra. For some the act of shopping, of consuming, of treating the world like their own private hypermarket is both thrilling and fulfilling. But the psychology – or neurosis – of the consumer society aside, there are serious environmental implications for a world where we shop with no goal other than to consume.
To combat this problem we have labels: organic, biodynamic, dolphin-friendly, cruelty-free, Fair for Life, FairWild Fairtrade, Freedom Food, Carbon Neutral, recycled (or recyclable). These labels help consumers make choices about the impact of their shopping on people and planet.
The push to turn us into ethical shoppers rather than just shoppers has been working. The ethical shopping market is growing and yet surveys show that while most of us fall into the ‘shoppers with ethics’ category, most of us still don’t feel as if we have enough time to make sense of all the information – or feel that the label itself is not giving us a full enough picture to help us make ethical decisions.
The problems of shopping by labels
Although labels can be useful, it’s doubtful that any single label will ever give us the full story behind our purchases.
Shopping by labels is a frustrating process that has come about in part because of how we have learned to produce goods (by strangers in faraway countries) and shop for them (disconnected from the producer and the production process).
The complexity of the global marketplace means there is still no all-encompassing label to guarantee, for instance, that our clothes and other non-food items are not made with sweatshop or slave labour. Likewise, although organic produce commands a higher price at the checkout, there are still no guarantees that workers on organic farms are benefiting.
Buying fairly may help support industry in the developing world, but it can leave local communities in tatters, produce pollution through air miles and manufacturing effluent and emissions, and promote waste in the mountains of primary, secondary and shipping packaging required to move goods around the globe and get them on the shelves.
For for pants as well as people
Now there is a new wiggle in the story.
We know that producing goods – any goods – can require serious resources. Every year we are using up more than one planet’s worth of resources, and like spending more than you earn this is creating deficits in non-renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels – and even fresh water.
Even those who aspire to a more natural way of life may be contributing to the problem of resource depletion without really knowing it. If you use herbs for health and wellbeing you are using a natural resource.
Many herbs used for teas or medicines are still wild collected in fact it is estimated that more than 50,000 species of wild-collected medicinal and aromatic plants contribute to health and livelihoods world-wide. Over-collection of many species, combined with habitat loss, threatens this valuable resource.
In Europe it is estimated that about 2,000 plants are traded commercially, of which 60-70% are native species. Up to 90% of these are still collected from the wild, creating an important market and genetic base for many essential drugs.
In fact, at least 25% of our prescription medicines (some put the figure as high as 40%) use naturally occurring substances from plants.
Europe has a tremendous diversity of wild plants that have been sustaining our health for centuries and to continue to enjoy their benefits we need to protect them.
As our consumption of herbs – in herbal teas, spices, foods, dietary supplements and cosmetics – goes up so do the challenges of ensuring that there is enough to meet current needs, but also to ensure that these valuable resources are still there for our children and children’s children and beyond.
A fair standard for wild plants
The biggest threats to wild plant life include over harvesting and habitat loss.
According to the conservation group FairWild traditional knowledge of wild harvesting techniques is also being lost as people move away from rural areas – drawn to the promise of easier and more prosperous life in cities.
The FairWild Standard, aims to tackle all these things by protecting habitats and providing a fair income for collectors in rural communities.
Established in 2010, Fairwild’s goal is:
“To ensure the continued use and long-term survival of wild plant species and populations in their habitats, while respecting the traditions and cultures, and supporting the livelihoods of all stakeholders, in particular collectors and workers.”
For instance, to obtain FairWild certification, collectors, who may have habitually dug up an entire plant, are required to leave some of the root in the ground so that the plant can regrow the following year.
Instead of clearing all of the herbs out of a particular area, collectors are also be required to leave a percentage – which varies according to the plants but can be as high as 40% – untouched so that the seed can mature plants can naturally regenerate (these are important principles for weekend foragers as well!).
Collectors also have to work within specified areas which have been identified as able to support wild collection.
A growing problem
But given nature’s abundance, is the problem really that bad?
A recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) suggests it is.
The IUCN European Red List of Medicinal Plants provides information on the status of all major medicinal plants native to Europe. Its 2014 report looked at 400 plants which grow widely throughout Europe. These include common and widely-used species such as Arnica (Arnica montana), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) but also the Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris).
Around 31% of the plants assessed in the study were considered to be declining (including the Arnica and Common Heather) and 2% are on the verge with extinction.
While the percentage of plant species threatened with extinction is relatively low compared to other species groups, the number of species on the decline is high and growing. Active conservation measures need to be in place to ensure their long-term survival.
Among the main threats to Europe’s medicinal plants identified by the assessment is the collection of plants from the wild – for their medicinal value and for the ornamental and horticultural plant trade. This was found to affect nearly half (48%) of the plants designated as Threatened or Near Threatened.
Loss of habitat, through residential and commercial development, and impacts from agriculture were identified as other important threats to medicinal plants, affecting 48% and 67% of threatened and Near Threatened species respectively. Any further habitat loss therefore threatens their survival, said the authors.
For example, the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) used in homeopathic and herbal medicines, has been assessed as Near Threatened. Although it is widespread throughout western and central Europe, its population has declined and is fragmented.
For those of us who love herbs and appreciate all the benefits they bring into our lives, the path is clear. If we want to continue to enjoy the benefits that wild herbs bring us, then we must pay attention to these statistics and think ahead.
Companies that source ‘fair’ products carry ‘fair’ certification marque on their products. These companies are supporting more than our right to keep on consuming. They are supporting diversity and resilience, viable alternatives – in health, well-being and environmental management.
 Ethical Consumer – Markets Report 2014, See: http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/portals/0/downloads/ethical_consumer_markets_report_2014.pdf
 Forum for the Future, Consumer Futures 2020 – Scenarios for Tomorrow’s Consumers, 2011. See https://www.forumforthefuture.org/sites/default/files/project/downloads/consumer-futures-2020-full-document.pdf
 Global Footprint Network. See: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint
 European Red List of Medicinal Plants, 2014, IUCN. See: http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_european_red_list_of_medicinal_plants_web.pdf?dm_i=2GI3,9N1D,40EOD6,LR6Z,1