In the Sustainable Herbs Program Webinar, “The Importance of Data in the Botanical Industry,Josef Brinckmann and Wolfgang Kathe discuss the findings in their recent article, “A New Global Estimation of Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Species in Commercial Cultivation and Their Conservation Status.” Below are some highlights and key points from the webinar. The webinar recording is at the bottom of the post.

Conservation Status of Cultivation

The research on which this article is based was a project of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN). This project set out to get up-to-date figures about the number of medicinal plants in commercial cultivation, understand the conservation status of wild medicinal plant species (that have also been brought into cultivation), and find out whether plants were coming into cultivation due to their scarcity in the wild or for other reasons.

For many years, BfN has primarily focused on wild harvesting and how to make it more sustainable. For example, it was BfN that spearheaded the development of the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP) in the early 2000’s, which was a precursor to the FairWild Standard. The agency realized that medicinal plant production was shifting from wild harvesting to cultivation which also impacted conservation and natural ecosystems. The researchers set out to answer: What is the scope of medicinal plant cultivation? What species are in cultivation? Is there a relationship between endangered species being on national or IUCN Red List or being CITES listed and being brought into cultivation?

BfN asked the researchers to pay special attention to conservation oriented cultivation and to look out for any examples of innovative models that considered biodiversity conservation in and around the farming area. They were particularly interested in types of cultivation they called natural fostering models.

How Many Medicinal Plant Species are Cultivated?

Estimates that everyone cites have said that around 900 species of medicinal plants are in cultivation. In this project, they found at least 3200 species in commercial cultivation. These numbers include all sizes of farms including small holders growing medicinal plants in their home gardens and selling those goods to the market.

Josef mentioned that he was personally interested in conducting this research because a lot of the literature cited the same data sources about the number of species coming from the wild and from cultivation. He wanted to be able to determine the accuracy of that information and believed, based on experience, that the number of medicinal and aromatic plant crops being grown at farms must be in the thousands.

Scope of Research

The research documents the number of species in cultivation. It does not document the quantities of how much of any species comes from cultivation or from the wild. Wolfgang explained that there have been attempts over the past decades to estimate volume amounts. Yet these can only ever be very general estimates for three reasons:

  1. Lack of Transparency The industry, especially traders, is not that transparent when it comes to providing data on volumes that are traded. The market is competitive and companies rarely want to give away data on where they get how much of their material.
  2. Tariff Codes Import export tariff codes for trading medicinal and aromatic plants are not adequately detailed to get meaningful numbers. Josef added, “For the vast majority of medicinal plants in commerce, thousands of them, there are no species-specific codes. And there isn’t a government agency keeping track.” Import-export trade data is just that. It does not capture quantities produced and used inside a country and it is likely that the largest share of medicinal plants are used in local and traditional medicines in many countries, and therefore are not exported nor counted in trade dataFurthermore, in the biggest herb producing countries in the world, India, China, herbs are not only produced for international trade but are also used domestically in significant volumes. In these countries, the responsible government agencies do track production levels and domestic trade levels of the major medicinal ad aromatic plant crops, but the data is not freely or publicly available. .
  3. Complex trade chains. “If you want to check volumes, where do you check them?,” Wolfgang asked. “Ideally you check them where they are produced. But that’s practically impossible. There are hundreds of thousands of sites where herbs are being produced, either cultivated or wild collected. It’s easier to intercept the trade at a later stage. But wherever you intercept the trade, you can’t be sure you are not counting the same volumes several times because you already captured them at another part of the trade. So it is very difficult to make a good estimate about volumes.”

Where are Herbs Cultivated?

Along with the article, they include an Excel sheet that provides incredibly detailed information (15,000 line items) for where the 3227 species are found in cultivation, including the farms, sometimes the province or region where they could find that level of specificity. This level of detail is invaluable. As Josef said, though this is changing, many people in the botanical industry lack information about the geographic origin of the species, whether it is cultivated or wild to begin with. This data provides a baseline to work with to have a better understanding of the species and its production scenario.

To download the supplementary material, go to Supplementary Information (a tab on the right hand side of this page for the article. This information is available for free).

Conservation Impacts of Cultivation

Wolfgang explained that from a conservation perspective, there are pros and cons to cultivation. A lot of research has gone into asking how wild collection can be done in a sustainable way. Theoretically, and in many cases practically, he thinks they have come a long way in figuring out how to do that.

But cultivated herbs are a different story. Wolfgang continued, “Of course, we have sustainability standards that also cover cultivation. These standards regulate cultivation practices as to avoid massive mineral fertilizer or herbicide inputs, hence reducing the negative impact of cultivation on the environment.”

These standards don’t ask what effect the cultivation of medicinal plants has on the wild resources. In some regions, there are a lot of agroforestry systems, which are systems of more integrated cultivation. But when you look at the numbers, there is also quite a high number of medicinal plants in intensive cultivation. And that means you just need space. You need fields. When you begin to cultivate medicinal plants, you shift the area from natural or semi natural ecosystems into a pure agricultural environment. That’s my question: What does this process do to the environment? How can we make a link between that cultivation and environmental protection on the species level? How can the species in the wild be protected?”

Cultivation Impacts on Livelihoods

Wolfgang explained that it is also important to consider the impacts on livelihoods caused by bringing medicinal plants into cultivation. The household income of quite a number of people may depend on wild harvesting. When you transfer to cultivation, even if you do it in the same geographic area, you will need far fewer people, and often you will have different people involved in farming than wildcrafting. Therefore, such a change in sourcing practices will likely have an effect on livelihoods as well.”

“We should be aware that you are losing biodiversity just by putting a farm into a formerly natural or semi-natural environment,” Josef added. “The organic rules require you to maintain some untouched areas or zones rich in biodiversity in and around your farm. But in practice I’ve seen, and I’m sure Wolfgang has as well, some pretty large mono-crop organic farms around the world that don’t have much evidence of a biodiversity buffer zone.”

Why Are Plants Brought Into Cultivation?

Bringing some species into cultivation, as Wolfgang said, “is relatively easy. Others are horribly complicated.” It requires a significant investment to do this. Typically only species in high demand warrant the investment. They found that plants were cultivated less because those plants are at risk or CITES listed, and more so that a company can have greater control and predictability over volumes and quality than when they are sourcing from the wild. There is more variability in the quality of plants coming from the wild.

Josef explained, “I’ve seen a number of controlled cultivation sites, particularly in Germany over the years that are doing it for just that reason. They wouldn’t use wild material because they are selecting the starting material. It’s all very uniform. The plants are cultivated in the same way. They use scientific measurement throughout the vegetative phase to determine scientifically when to harvest so they can optimize the yield of the compounds of interest. That’s basically pharmaceutical farming or controlled cultivation. That is another reason why some companies have moved from wild collection to cultivation.”

Decline in Wild Collectors

Many medicinal plant species used in high volumes in Europe are cultivated or wild-collected in southeastern Europe. “We are observing a huge decline in the number of wild collectors because they have other alternatives. People are moving from rural to urban areas,” Wolfgang said. “As a company is safer to source from farms where you don’t need as many people and so the personnel shortage won’t impact production in the same way.”

Josef continued, “It has been observed that more and more people are moving from rural to urban areas. There is a risk of loss of transmission of traditional ecological knowledge from one generation to the next. It is very difficult to bring people who are not familiar with a terrain or an ecosystem from somewhere else and come in and figure out how to do it sustainably.

Recommendations for Future Research

Several members of the audience asked about themes and questions for future research. SHP Director and moderator, Ann Armbrecht asked if a research project that looked more closely at natural fostering and other sustainable cultivation practices could have an impact.

Wolfgang answered that he thought it could definitely have an impact. The first question, he said, is not whether a species is wild harvested or cultivated or whatever there is in between, such as natural fostering or agroforestry. The main issue is: is medicinal plant production and sourcing done in a sustainable way? And sustainable, referring back to the original meaning of the word, means not only that sourcing must be beneficial to the environment, but also to livelihoods. Hence, it also looks into the social impacts that cultivation or wild collection practices have on the ground. The third pillar of sustainability is the economic viability of production along the trade chain. So, if we consider these things together, then I would think companies could do a lot to promote that for themselves, when they look into their trade chains. It may also be beneficial if companies get together to initiate or support specific research projects that analyze how sourcing can become more sustainable or how natural fostering systems can work for specific plants.”

Complete Webinar

Watch the complete conversation here: