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How climate change is affecting medicinal plants: A phenological, physiological and phytochemical analysis

Written by Josef A. Brinckmann

Climate change is having a dramatic effect not only on plant harvesting times, but also on the phytochemicals in plants. This article investigates how.

Observations from the field

Over the course of my field work, aiming to observe the harvesting of medicinal plants at the “right times” for production of pharmacopoeial quality herbs, done in the “right ways” for sustainable resource management and trade, I can state that, in recent decades, predictability of harvest periods has become uncertain in some regions of the world. In some locations there has been notable fluctuation from year-to-year.

Anecdotally, plant harvesters have shared their observations of the changing climate, uncertainties of harvest times and yields, as these factors directly impact livelihoods and rural economies. I have also observed some impacts of extreme weather on herb quality (e.g., stunted growth, lower yield, lower essential oil content) but also on the ability to even harvest herbs in some years due to, for example, torrential rains, flash flooding, and landslides (or conversely no monsoon at all). Changing or fluctuating growing seasons can also impact whether, or not, there will be sufficient labor available at harvest time. In rural communities, where some villagers make some – or all – of their household income harvesting medicinal plants for trade, different herbs or mushrooms are targeted for harvesting in different months based on traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Labor was traditionally organized accordingly. Climatic unpredictability may be impacting such TEK.

But – these statements come only from my experiences and observations. The accumulated analyses of competent researchers worldwide are contributing to a growing body of scientific literature, that carries with it, I believe, urgency.

Since 1979, I have worked at all levels of the medicinal plant sector; organic farm and wild collection, production of extracts, manufacturing of finished herbal medicinal products, TCM clinic, standards-setting (quality and sustainability), and consulting governmental- and intergovernmental organizations in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation projects in Africa, Asia, and South America.
From 2002 to 2016, I served as International Consultant on Market Intelligence for Medicinal Plants at the International Trade Centre, the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations; 2004-2008 as a member of the International Standard for the Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP) Steering Group; and 2008-2021 as a member of the Board of Trustees of the FairWild Foundation, a standards setting organization for sustainable wild collection of medicinal plants. I presently serve as Research Fellow for Medicinal Plants and Botanical Supply Chain at Traditional Medicinals (Sebastopol, California).
I am an elected member of the United States Pharmacopoeia Botanical Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicines Expert Committee. At the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, I am an advisor on commercial sources & handling and international regulatory status. I serve as an Advisory Board member of the American Botanical Council and Advisory Group member of ABC’s Sustainable Herbs Program. In 2016, I was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in Healing and Sustainability honoris causa from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and California Institute of Integral Studies.

Josef Brinckmann

Since 1979, I have worked at all levels of the medicinal plant sector; organic farm and wild collection, production of extracts, manufacturing of finished herbal medicinal products, TCM clinic, standards-setting (quality and sustainability), and consulting governmental- and intergovernmental organizations in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation projects in Africa, Asia, and South America.
From 2002 to 2016, I served as International Consultant on Market Intelligence for Medicinal Plants at the International Trade Centre, the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations; 2004-2008 as a member of the International Standard for the Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP) Steering Group; and 2008-2021 as a member of the Board of Trustees of the FairWild Foundation, a standards setting organization for sustainable wild collection of medicinal plants. I presently serve as Research Fellow for Medicinal Plants and Botanical Supply Chain at Traditional Medicinals (Sebastopol, California).
I am an elected member of the United States Pharmacopoeia Botanical Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicines Expert Committee. At the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, I am an advisor on commercial sources & handling and international regulatory status. I serve as an Advisory Board member of the American Botanical Council and Advisory Group member of ABC’s Sustainable Herbs Program. In 2016, I was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in Healing and Sustainability honoris causa from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and California Institute of Integral Studies.

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