Medicine in Your Hands:
Creating a Future for Our Herbs
by Peg Schafer and Jean Giblette
Fueled by strong market demand, the worldwide trade in Asian medicinal plants is expanding at an annual rate of 10 percent. The traditional medicine and pharmaceutical industry markets are increasing, within China as well as internationally, placing unrelenting pressure on already depleted wild reserves. This has resulted in 15-35 percent of all Asian medicinal plants currently considered to be in endangered status.1
Factors and Reasons for Concern
China has approximately 30,000 endemic plant species-about 50 percent more than the number native to North America.2 While the most popular species of Chinese herbs, roughly 25 percent, are currently cultivated, the other 75 percent are still wild harvested.
Unsustainable wild-harvesting and climate change, along with loss of habitat, are the major contributing factors to the decline in wild medicinal plant resources. While some of the more opportunistic botanicals maintain healthy populations, others are becoming increasingly rare and some are on the brink of extinction.3
Herbs from China are rising in cost, lessening the price differences between imported and domestically produced medicinal herb material.
Import and export bans, some unrelated to conservation issues and emanating from United States as well as Chinese regulators, are eliciting accessibility concerns.
The tools of the trade are at risk.
As the global herbalist community faces these challenges, well-informed and conscientious action is more imperative than ever before. Every stakeholder-from the people who collect and cultivate, to the practitioners and consumers who engage in trade-must cooperate to address sustainable resource management and long-term species survival. The good news is: we can practice conservation and meet the demand for Asian medicinal plants with widely dispersed, agro-ecological cultivation, sustainable wild-collection practices, and responsible trade.
Cultivate to Conserve
To bring these medicinal plants, most of which are wild species, under responsible cultivation will require time and support from all stakeholders. In the United States the land grant colleges formerly assumed the role of crop introduction, but since the 1980s many of these research institutions are heavily financed by large agribusiness, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations in pursuit of proprietary products. The people's response to these developments has been popular movements such as organic farming, permaculture, local food and raw milk. Local community-based, small-scale, entrepreneurial agricultural operations-such as the Medicinal Herb Consortium (www.localherbs.org), as well as the Sonoma County Herb Association (www.sonomaherb.org) and other emerging herb production groups-are taking the lead in state-of-the-art ecological medicinal plant cultivation, often in conjunction with innovative herbal product businesses.
Wild-collection of medicinal plants, often ineffectively regulated and turned into commodities sold into global trade channels, has the effect of holding down the price for raw materials. Responsible ecological growers and land stewards can't compete with these artificially cheap wild products.4 However, the market is awakening to these concerns and is showing more willingness to pay for the intangible qualities of medicinal herbs. The intangibles are similar to those found in local food: you know exactly where it comes from, how it was grown, how (and when) it was harvested and how it got to you. Knowing all the details of how the herb was handled is called transparency, an important intangible value worth a higher price.
The idea that locally-grown food is healthier is not just folklore. Only within the last 15 years has scientific research revealed the extent to which plants-along with the microbial substrate found in the soil, in our intestinal tracts, in fact everywhere-mediate human existence on this planet.5 Plants adapt through epigenetic expression of characteristics and behaviors; variations have been observed in wild plant populations separated by a relatively short distance. 6 If the plants we ingest have already adapted to our locality--including characteristic microbes, pollens, soils and water--they will present less of a challenge to our digestion. Use holistic thinking or Daoist tradition to understand this relationship; our science has yet to reach this level. Then, take the implications one step further. If we are our local plants and animals because we eat them, our health depends directly on theirs. While we want China and the entire planet to be 100 percent authentically organic, as a practical matter we have to start that journey in our own locales, through our food choices.
For a win-win situation where growers and consumers support each other and the environment, the cultivated herbs will have to be as efficacious as their wild relatives and available in sufficient quantities. Some of the herbs are perennial crops like trees that take years to grow to harvest size. How do we capitalize such an industry? Buyers-whether herbal practitioners, patients or product makers-will have to organize to find innovative means of financing production.
The alternative is that no one wins. However, long-term health and survival are strong motivating forces that already are driving the formation of local task forces for ecological medicinal plant production.
How to Be Part of the Solution
The herb user's first step toward a solution is to avoid purchasing endangered or threatened wild-harvested species.7 Unfortunately, origins are often difficult to determine. Be vigilant; demand transparency and accountability from suppliers. Is the product labeled with the location of origin? (Maybe the country of origin is no longer sufficient information.) Are the genus and species listed? The Pinyin medicinal name does not indicate a specific species and for protection the plant must be identified. When were the plants harvested? Domestic growers currently provide this level of transparency. Remember that you as the consumer are the motivating factor in commerce-voices will be heard when customers vote with their money.
The various certification processes of organic, ecologically grown and others are sometimes poorly understood by consumers. Powerful commercial interests act to co-opt these distinctions. The ideal of transparency in the farm-to-market value chain is difficult to maintain and is largely based on interpersonal trust. As a traditional Asian medicine practitioner your voice can also encourage your professional organizations to demand accountability from suppliers.
We know that an increasing number of you are waiting for the option to buy domestic and ecologically-grown medicinal herbs. A shorter supply chain experiences fewer quality failures. Shorter travel distances coupled with smaller and more local businesses, along with a culture of openness and accountability, usually means fresher products. Even if we all agree on the goal, however, the path of development is far from straight and easy.
Gone are the days of the Green Revolution and its fantasy of endless fields of monocrops planted and harvested with fossil-fueled machinery. Today's eco-farm more resembles a densely planted garden with adjoining wetlands and forests. We are just now learning how to design, finance, plant, and farm in a way that will provide resilience to the landscape and create hope for survival in the face of climate change.
These challenges are best met with diverse human ingenuity. We look to the local task forces now in formation, and expect to see problems solved cooperatively, from the ground up. How can we be so optimistic? Because it's a matter of survival, for our plants and ourselves, and necessity sharpens the will.
Peg Schafer is the author of the newly released book The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator's Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production Chelsea Green Publishing, Including chapters on cultivation as well as herb quality, conservation, and medicinal use. Email Peggy Schafer.
Jean Giblette is a medicinal plant grower, teacher, investigator in Chinese medicinal plant production research, and contributor to Mending the Web of Life: Chinese Medicine and Species Conservation. She can be reached at www.highfallsgardens.net.
1. Liu Xueyuan. Promoting sustainable use of Chinese traditional plant medicines. State of Wildlife Trade in China, 2007, Traffic East Asia pg 8.
2. Boufford, DE and Brach, AR (editors), Flora of China Web: Introduction/Overview (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Herbaria). Accessed 2/27/12 at http://flora.huh.harvard.edu/china/mss/intro.htm.
3. Mulliken, T and Crofton, P. Review of the Status, Harvest, Trade and Management of Seven Asian CITES Listed Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Species. Bonn, Germany: BfN Federal Agency for Nature Conservation. 2008. Page 5. Accessed 3/03/11 here.
4. Burkhart, EP and Jacobson, MG. Transitioning from wild collection to forest cultivation of indigenous medicinal forest plants in eastern North America is constrained by lack of profitability. Agroforestry Systems Journal 76:2 (June 2009): 437-453.
5. Shaw, J. The Undiscovered Planet. Harvard Magazine (Nov-Dec 2007): 44-53. Accessed 2/28/12 at: http://harvardmag.com/pdf/2007/11-pdfs/1107-44.pdf.
6. Richards, Eric J. Natural epigenetic variation in plant species: a view from the field. Current Opinion in Plant Biology 14:2 (April 2011): 204-209.
7. Call, E. et al. Mending the Web of Life: Chinese Medicine and Species Conservation. Silver Spring MD: American Herbal Products Association, 2006.