Natural Foods Merchandiser

Plant collection standard heeds call of the wild

Josef Brinckmann has visited parts of the planet where the inhabitants of entire villages rely on the harvesting of wild plants for their livelihood. That socio?economic dependence on the medicinal and aromatic plant industry is one of the drivers behind the creation of a new international standard for the sustainable collection of wild plants.

Guidelines published by the World Health Organization and others already exist for the conservation of wild plants. But a new set of standards, introduced earlier this year during the World Organic Trade Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, takes sustainable management and trade in wild plants a step further, said Brinckmann, vice president of research and development at Traditional Medicinals, a California herbal tea company.

"This standard aims to bridge the gap between existing broad conservation guidelines and management plans developed for specific local conditions," Brinckmann said. "[A standard] has to be written in such a way that it can be used for wild collection in the Himalayas as well as for wild collection in the desert of Namibia."

An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are used in traditional and modern medicinal systems throughout the world, according to the World Conservation Union's Medicinal Plant Specialist Group. MPSG prepared the new wild plant standard, known as the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, or ISSC-MAP.

The standard, a voluntary set of guidelines, focuses on good collection practices such as monitoring and reporting ecosystem changes, properly identifying species, and determining sustainable yields. It also addresses social and economic factors, such as the customary rights of indigenous people. Its supporters say ISSC-MAP provides clear principles and viable criteria for governments and the industry to improve wild plant sustainability management.

MPSG estimates that over-harvesting, land conversion and habitat loss threatens as many as 15,000 wild plant species. Brinckmann, who sits on the ISCC-MAP decision board, noted that only about 1,000 medicinal plants are cultivated on farms, meaning most raw materials still come from the wild. Some experts believe wholesale cultivation won't work because many wild plants simply can't be properly tamed, or become less effective under the hoe and till.

However, conservation through cultivation is becoming more of a viable option, said Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council.

"The trend is toward increasing output from farmers," he said, adding that cultivation takes pressure off wild harvesting. "There's always going to be a market for wild plants," he conceded. "[ISSC-MAP is a] good step in the right direction for helping increase awareness of … sustainable purchasing. A lot of companies never ask the question about sustainability. They need to start doing that as part of their purchasing procedure. It needs to become as important as … the quality of the material."

Adoption of the criteria could be costly, particularly if the plants are located in isolated regions, Brinckmann conceded. For example, Traditional Medicinals helped back a test of the new standard for the sustainable collection of wild bearberry, a shrub whose leaves are used for kidney, bladder and urinary tract health.

The study, in Siberia, required a site visit by an expert to look at collection techniques and local conditions. Those variables, along with an understanding of such things as the plant's biology, help determine sustainable harvest quantities. Traditional Medicinals also sponsored an organic inspector to go to the site to see if ISSC-MAP could serve as a template for certain certification requirements.

"We think the ISSC-MAP can be a tool for organic certifiers to have far stronger evidence of sustainable wild collection than they would otherwise," Brinckmann said.

Not every company might be prepared to pay a premium for sustainability, but Brinckmann said the new standard reflects his company's 30-year-old business model and fair trade philosophy. And more consumers are buying into the belief that consumerism comes with ethical responsibilities, he added. "We're seeing evidence that people are going there with us."

The standard is not all about being selfless. "We're in a business that relies, in some degree, on wild harvested plants. It's in our business interest to ensure that we use those in a sustainable manner, because if we don't, we won't have the ingredients that go into our products," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association. McGuffin also served in an advisory role for ISSC-MAP. He said the standard is one possible model for sustainability management but additional testing is needed.

"It's really at a stage now where industry has to see if it makes any sense," he said. "Industry has to see if it's pragmatic. If it's a lot of good ideas and it's not pragmatic, then it's just a lot of good ideas."

To download a copy of ISSC-MAP and related documents, visit

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.16,18

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