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Global Standard Set for Wild Medicinal Plant Harvesting

NUREMBERG, Germany, February 20, 2007 (ENS) - A new standard to promote sustainable management and trade of wild medicinal and aromatic plants was launched Friday in Nuremberg at Biofach, the World Organic Trade Fair. The standard is needed to ensure plants used in medicine and cosmetics are not over-exploited.

About 15,000 species, or 21 percent of all medicinal and aromatic plant species are at risk, according to the report by the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of the IUCN's Species Survival Commission that sets forth the new standard.

More than 400,000 metric tons of medicinal and aromatic plants are traded every year, and about 80 percent of these species are harvested from the wild.

Almost 70,000 species are involved, many of them in danger of over-exploitation or extinction through over-harvesting and habitat loss. In India, for instance, 319 medicinal plants are listed as Threatened by IUCN-the World Conservation Union.

In Ecuador, one of the best known medical herbs in the world, Cascarilla cinchona pubescens - the original source of the anti-malarial drug quinine - may be threatened as a result of over-exploitation, according to the global conservation organization WWF. Today the herb is used to treat a variety of ailments, from upset stomach to immune system problems.

In Eastern Europe, unsustainable collection of the wild herb Pheasant's eye, Adonis vernalis, used to treat cardiac ailments, has led to declines throughout the plant's range, says WWF, and today the species is protected from collection in many countries.

In the United States, large quantities of American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, and goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, are collected in the wild. Although much of the ginseng exported from the United States is now cultivated, enough collection of the wild plant occurs that trade in the species is now regulated.

Both ginseng and goldenseal are listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which allows trade in these plants only through a permitting system.

About 90 percent of the ginseng exported from the United States each year goes to countries in East Asia. The United States imports hundreds of thousands of tons of many different herbs each year to support its $3 billion market.

Following extensive consultation with plant experts and the herbal products industry, the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, ISSC-MAP, was drawn up by the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group.

The German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation was involved in the consultation along with WWF-Germany, and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, plus industry associations, companies, certifiers and community-based nongovernmental organizations.

"Traders and companies, collectors and consumers must share the responsibility for maintaining populations of medicinal plants which are valuable natural resources," said Susanne Honnef of TRAFFIC.

"The ISSC-MAP principles and criteria show how this can be achieved in practice," she said.

The standard is based on six principles - maintaining medicinal and aromatic plant resources in the wild, preventing negative environmental impacts, legal compliance, respecting customary rights, applying responsible management practices, and applying responsible business practices.

Traditional Medicinals, a California herbal medicine company, is testing the application of the new standard to the collection of bearberry, a shrub whose leaves are used to treat the kidney, bladder and urinary tract.

"Our German supplier was able to prove the sustainability of their bearberry sources, and we are keen to see how the newly developed ISSC-MAP criteria apply to this trade. Sustainable supplies will mean long-term benefits for the local people who rely on the bearberry trade for supplementary income," said Josef Brinckman, vice-president of Traditional Medicinals.

"I welcome the launch of this new standard, which presents an important step in ensuring the sustainable use of natural pharmaceutical products," said Professor Detlev Drenckhahn, president of WWF-Germany. "We’d like to see other companies use the standard and see how it works in practice for their benefit."

One of the many challenges in applying a sustainable standard to the collection of wild medicinal and aromatic plants, MAP, is that the dependence of local communities on these resources for health and livelihood security is rarely assessed or recorded.

Little research on harvesting techniques has been done on how to collect wild MAP species sustainably.

Maximum quotas for wild collection of medicinal and aromatic plant species are often based on "overly simple and untested assumptions about the relationship between available supply and regeneration" of these plants, according to the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group.

Products, uses, and markets based on medicinal and aromatic plant species are numerous and diverse, and there is a wide proliferation of labels and claims - such as organic and fair trade - which imply but do not provide a means of verifying sustainable wild collection.

Finally, long and complex source-to-market supply chains make tracing a product back to its source extremely difficult, the specialist group says.

Still, the new standard provides a benchmark to work with.

Monitoring is an important part of the new standard. Collection and management practices must be based on adequate identification, inventory, assessment, and monitoring of the target species and collection impacts.

The standard provides that the conservation status of target MAP species and populations is assessed and regularly reviewed.

Negative impacts to other wild species, the collection area, and neighboring areas caused by collection activities must be prevented, especially if rare, threatened, and endangered species and habitats might be affected.

The standard provides that collection activities are carried out in a transparent manner with respect to management planning and implementation, recording and sharing information, and involving stakeholders.

Managers will work to support quality, financial, and labor requirements of the market without sacrificing sustainability of the resource, and will prevent and minimize the collection of plants unlikely to be sold.

Managers will also provide adequate work-related health, safety, and financial compensation to collectors and other workers, and they will ensure that workers have adequate training, supervision, and experience to comply with the requirements of the new standard.

To view that Medicinal Plant Specialist Group paper that sets forth the complete standard, click here.
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