The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently overturned a 2005 ban on exports of American ginseng plants that had grown for fewer than 10 years.
"I think it's an excellent step in the right direction, based on scientific evidence," said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. "The Fish and Wildlife Service made the right decision."
Concerned about the sustainability of wild American ginseng, the FWS ruled in August 2005 that the plants be at least 10 years old before they could be harvested legally. The FWS overturned this rule in July, reverting to the previous requirement that ginseng plants be at least five years old.
American ginseng grows four or five years before it produces seeds and is able to reproduce. Because the roots are considered the medicinal part of the plant, the herb can't grow back after it has been harvested. The 2005 rule would have prevented most wild ginseng harvesting until five years past maturity. The ruling was unpopular among harvesters and others in the herbal products industry. They challenged the rule at subsequent public meetings and comment periods, questioning the FWS methods and decision-making processes. "Government decisions should not be made in a vacuum, like this one was," Blumenthal said. "There was an outcry from the industry that forced them to revisit their science and see that the previous rule was keeping ginseng sustainable."
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna has been monitoring wild American ginseng, or Panax quinquefolius, since 1975 due to concerns about the species' sustainability.
The FWS issued its 2005 ruling to ensure harvesters allow enough time for the herb to reproduce before being harvested, according to Blumenthal.
Harvesters export most wild American ginseng to Asia. The root's sales are regulated on a state-by-state basis and it isn't clear how much harvesters earn with exports, especially because some harvesting is done illegally.
However, the state of Kentucky tracks exports and reports $10 million worth of ginseng exports per year. Harvesters in 18 other states also export wild ginseng.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 11