A key issue in sourcing botanicals is determing whether a plant is wild harvested or not and, if it is, whether that harvesting is sustainable for the species. Rhodiola rosea offers a window into the challenges with wild harvested medicinal plants that 1) are from remote regions of the world; 2) suddenly undergo a rise in popularity; and 3) are slow growing. This video introduces the issues and challenges in sourcing Rhodiola rosea.
Several in-depth articles have recently been written on rhodiola.[i] Rather than repeat information that is covered in those articles and this video, I want to highlight some of the challenges that rhodiola brings to light.
Listening to Josef, Nelda, and Petra in the interviews for the video, I thought the solution seemed fairly clear. Because rhodiola rosea is a slow growing root that grows in fairly limited areas, and is suddenly more popular, it seems to make sense to work out how to cultivate it. Yet, a conversation between an individual purchasing rhodiola for a brand committed to ethical sourcing and a researcher made it clear how the answers aren’t black and white.
Rhodiola is one of the biggest ingredients for the company and so it made sense from a cost perspective to extract it themselves. But the biomarker on cultivated rhodiola was lower than that grown in the wild. This meant the company would need to buy more raw material of a cultivated plant that not only cost more but the quantities would need to be much larger because of the lower levels of active constituents.
From a company’s perspective, when purchasing herbs, things first have to pencil out in terms of quality and price, she explained. Then the next step is trying to find information on how the plants are harvested, what the environmental impacts are, how the herbs are handled, how well the workers are paid. This kind of research can take months which no herb company sourcing staff has time or resources to devote.
Right now, this company is working on qualifying a new supplier that assured them that the raw material they sourced was cultivated and that they were replanting the roots. Their research and development people went to Russia every year to oversee the process. The buyer wondered whether to trust the supplier’s claims that the rhodiola was sustainably harvested.
The researcher emphasized the importance of site visits. “No matter how good the supplier is, you learn new things when you show up.” Otherwise, you are depending on what the middle person asks, the questions they do and don’t ask, the things they do and do not value.
This maybe seems like a minor point, but the distinction became clear when being shown around farms and producer operations by an agronomist for a Bulgarian company. He was used to visitors who were interested in different issues and asking different questions than I was. And our visit had been set up according to those priorities: visiting as many different sites as possible and understanding the quality and growing conditions of the different species. I was instead interested in a slower trip with more in depth conversations with farmers and wild collectors about the conditions and challenges.
When gathering information about whether wild plants in fact are wild simulated, Josef Brinckmann explained when I interviewed him for the video, you also need to know whether those that are re-planting the root crowns have supply chain security. Does that company have exclusive access? Can you as a buyer get access to the maps and resource management plans even if not certified? There is a lot more to know, in other words, beyond a claim that plants are being replanted.
It is possible to manage the sustainability of wild harvesting, especially a species like elder flowers, by using sustainable wild collection management tools offered through certifications like FairWild.
Rhodiola is different because it grows so slowly and because it is a root. To ensure that wild collection is sustainable, you need to have tenure and to document who has access to the land. Then you need to have resource assessments of that area to assess regeneration. And yet, because rhodiola grows so slowly, it might take up to 20-30 years depending on what the population is.
With a species like rhodiola that is increasingly popular, Josef said, there is an urgent need to support, monitor, and manage wild collection and to support conservation oriented/regenerative organic agriculture.
It doesn’t make sense to simply stop wild collection of Rhodiola rosea. The industry would be gone. And so the smart thing is to both diversify the sources of raw material and do what you can to make sure that you are getting wild material in a way that is ethical, for starters, to make sure the species is not being illegally dug and smuggled across borders without permits. Beyond that, brands can work to ensure their partners in the country of origin (or the partners the companies that manufacture the extracts in countries of origin) have clear traceability and transparency and legal rights to the material. And finally, ask your partners in country of origin or in that region if they are trying to implement sustainable resource management plants.
For brands that have a main product using rhodiola and are investing in clinical research, it is in their longterm interest to invest some of that money into sustainable cultivation and building partnerships, Josef said. And these brands can also begin partnering with farmers. Not just at the end by saying the ingredients don’t meet our specs, but to work with those farmers and agronomists to try to develop ways to grow rhodiola in ways that can meet the quality required.
“Running out of time to smell the roseroots: Reviewing threats and trade in wild Rhodiola rosea L.,” J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Apr 6;269:113710.