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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Keep medicinal plants sustainable

Sustainability refers to a set of naturally occurring circumstances, or intentionally designed practices, which ensure that all parts of a situation are adequately nourished to promote their healthy continuance. In current parlance, sustainability often refers to practices designed to keep natural systems healthy. Many programs focus on environmental protection of traditional cultures. In the world of medicinal plants, sustainable practices include organic agriculture, species management, fair trade and benefit-sharing programs.

The medicinal plant trade operates in most countries, involves millions of people and occurs in a broad range of environments. Plant medicines are the most widely used medicines on earth and have been since the beginning of human history. As many as 50,000 species of plants form the basis of modern pharmacy and are the sources of life-saving drugs. The World Health Organization estimates gross annual sales of medicinal plants at $60 billion per year. This figure does not take into account plants employed for health purposes that are not traded. WHO further estimates that at least 80 percent of the world population depends primarily on plant medicines to meet their primary health care needs.

The history of the spice, medicinal and aromatic plant trades includes slavery and environmental destruction. Today, the medicinal plant trade continues at a brisk and accelerating rate in virtually all nations. A number of organizations recognize the need for sweeping reforms to create a more humane, ecologically sound and equitable system that can survive and flourish.

WHO, UNESCO, Convention On Biological Diversity and the World Wildlife Fund are focusing attention on the critical need to revise our practices. Failure to do so will result in more human poverty, environmental destruction, loss of plant species and diminished health care for billions of people. We are in a race against time.

Today's landscape

An increasing number of people are using plants as primary medicines, and the technology surrounding them has become sophisticated. Once, most plant medicines were consumed as simple teas—now they are processed into fluid and spray-dried extracts, standardized extracts, and tableted and encapsulated formulas.

As purchasing companies drive down prices to gain profits and market advantages, people in the field suffer. Few of the people who do the labor earn a fair wage. At the same time, they have little or no access to the market and do not share in technology breakthroughs. As a matter of conscience, establishing fair, sustainable wages and benefit-sharing for people in the field is essential.

Most commercial medicinal plants are harvested from the wild. Insatiable market demand has endangered as many as 10,000 species of plants. Wild harvesting of medicinal species needs to be radically curtailed, with significant increases in sustainable plant cultivation.

Large-scale wild harvesting of medicinal plants also damages habitat, but in some places where medicinal plants are cultivated, environmental and agricultural standards are either nonexistent or lax. Because of that, some medicinal plants test high in pollutants, heavy metals and agricultural chemicals. Certified organic production of medicinal plants is on the rise, but it still represents only a small sector of cultivation.

Toward a better world

Establishing fair wages is a top human priority. The Convention on Biological Diversity promotes benefit-sharing, such as royalties on sales of medicinal plant products, and technology sharing.

The loss of medicinal plant species is devastating to human health, damages the trade and harms the environment. To keep a great many medicinal plants available, we must scale back commercial wild harvesting and increase medicinal plant cultivation. If purchasing companies demand medicinal plants provided by sustainable practices, the loss of species will slow down and cultivated supply will increase.

In a sustainable system, the health of the field worker, the health of the environment and the health of the end user are all essential.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 46

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