A new report by TRAFFIC, the FAO and the IUCN Species Survival Commission Medicinal Plant Specialist Group looks at 12 common, wild-harvested plant ingredients and their effects on local sourcing communities and ecosystems.
A wander through your kitchen may reveal Brazil nuts in your cupboard, gum Arabic in your soda and liquorice in your herbal tea. Your bathroom may have lotions containing shea butter or skincare products made with baobab or argan oil. Frankincense or Jatamansi may be found in your favorite perfume.
“Behind seemingly minor ingredients lie complex supply chains and significant environmental and social risks. But there are also opportunities for environmental management that could benefit the local ecosystem and communities that depend on these plants," says Caitlin Schindler, TRAFFIC's Wild at Home Project Manager and lead author of the WildCheck report.
A staggering 60-90 percent of medicinal and aromatic plant species in trade are wild-harvested; yet the sustainability of their harvest is relatively unknown. The WildCheck report seeks to safeguard the future of people and plants by assigning low, medium or high social and biological risk ratings to wild-harvested plant ingredients, to help businesses and consumers uncover the hidden stories behind their ingredients and make informed, responsible decisions about what they buy.
Of the 21 percent of medicinal and aromatic plant species whose vulnerability status has been assessed, nine percent are considered threatened with extinction. However, the people who depend on specific species for vital income are also often threatened with socio-economic, political, discrimination, forced labour and sometimes health risks, as well.
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“The sustainable use of wild plants has critical implications for food security and millions of livelihoods worldwide,” says Sven Walter, who heads FAO's Forest Products and Statistics team. “It is time that wild plants are given serious consideration in our efforts to protect and restore habitats, promote sustainable agrifood systems and build inclusive, resilient and sustainable economies — particularly as countries work on post-COVID recovery.”
The WildCheck report comes amid a surge in global demand for wild plant ingredients — an increase of more than 75 percent in value over the past two decades. It evaluates 12 flagship wild plant species, dubbed the "Wild Dozen."
“The purpose of our social and biological risk ratings is not to dissuade businesses and consumers from using wild plant ingredients that can be harvested sustainably. On the contrary, it is to guide where steps can be taken to secure the long-term survival of wild-harvested species and availability of the sourced ingredients, improve marginalised livelihoods and enhance business ethics,” says Danna J. Leaman, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group.
As consumers become increasingly curious about the origins of their purchases, companies can be seen as leaders by attaining independent (third party) ethical and sustainability certifications, advocating for workers’ rights and — as in the case of candelilla wax — ensuring workers in their supply chain have adequate health and safety practices and equipment in place.
Candelilla wax, or E902, is found in a wide range of products — including cosmetics and shoe polishes, often as a vegan alternative to other waxes such as beeswax. It’s also used in chewing gum, food, medicines, and other industrial products such as adhesives. Top importers include the US, Japan, Germany and France; and its international trade is regulated by CITES. Its versatility as an ingredient makes it the most traded, wild-sourced medicinal and aromatic plant listed on CITES Appendix II, by volume.
“We may not think twice about this E number when we buy a lipstick, or even know that it’s an ingredient within it. Behind this seemingly minor ingredient, there can lie complex supply chains and significant environmental and social risks. But there are also opportunities for sustainable management that could benefit the local ecosystem and the communities that depend on this plant,” Schneider says.
Candelilla wax provides a vital source of livelihood to impoverished local communities of Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. A wax covers the stalks of the candelilla (euphorbia antisyphilitica) plant during the dry season to minimise water loss through evaporation. The greatest danger in sourcing candelilla comes at the wax-extraction stage. After collection, workers must immerse the plants in a mixture of water and acid, and the wax becomes separated as the liquid boils. This is a hazardous operation that poses risks of immediate and long-term health effects, particularly since visits to processing facilities have found improper storage of sulfuric acid and workers handling the chemical without safety equipment.
Candelilla harvesters (known as candelilleros) often face other poor labor conditions, too. Since the plant is found mainly in remote parts of the desert, harvesting trips may involve setting up temporary camps along arduous journeys. Candelilleros tend to be among the poorest in Mexican society; they are paid very little for the challenging work they do, and their limited employment opportunities can render them vulnerable to exploitation.
Besides the humanitarian risks, the report highlights that the candelilla plant has not yet been assessed by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™; and its limited distribution coupled with destructive harvesting techniques throws the survival of this valuable species into question.
Does your company use one of the Wild Dozen?
Businesses may enjoy a premium for sustainably-sourced, wild ingredients – as long as they can demonstrate these claims to consumers, who increasingly seek natural products with a positive impact.
“We encourage industries using the Wild Dozen, or any other wild plant ingredients, to delve into their supply chains — to understand the working conditions of harvesters that are supplying the ingredients they use and consider how they can support a sustainable harvest and good working conditions,” Walter asserts. “The report provides plenty of suggestions of how to achieve this.”
In addition to candelilla, the flagship wild plant ingredients highlighted in the report are:
Frankincense: Found in north-eastern parts of Africa — as well as in Oman, Somalia and Yemen — its resin is used for incense, aromatherapy, cosmetics, perfumes and traditional medicines.
Pygeum: Also listed in ingredients for medicines and herbal products as Prunus, African cherry, red stinkwood or African almond, this tree grows in forests across tropical Africa.
Shea: Grows across Africa, from Senegal to Uganda. Used widely in the food industry as a cocoa butter equivalent, it is also popular in cosmetics. Locally, it is used as a healthy cooking oil.
Jatamansi: A perennial, aromatic plant that grows in the Himalayas, its roots are harvested for their medicinal properties.
Gum arabic: This species grows in the gum belt region of Africa and is primarily used in the food and pharmaceutical industries as an additive, emulsifier or stabilizer. It is a popular ingredient in fizzy drinks.
Goldenseal: Also known as ground raspberry, this species is native to eastern North America and is primarily used for medicinal products.
Argan: Also known as Moroccan oil, its anti-aging properties make it a popular choice among European and North American consumers of cosmetics, while its oil is also used to treat several ailments, from acne to arthritis. It is harvested exclusively from Morocco.
Baobab: The Adansonia digitata variety of this species is native to mainland Africa. Baobab powder is used as a food and beverage ingredient, while its seed oil is used as a cosmetic ingredient.
Brazil nut: Harvested entirely from the wild, the tree is primarily exploited for its nutritious, edible nuts — packed with nutrients and antioxidants such as magnesium, zinc, protein and selenium. Its harvesting has contributed to preserving millions of hectares of Amazonian forests, which is why it is often called the cornerstone of Amazon Rainforest conservation.
Liquorice: This perennial herb is native to Eurasia, northern Africa and western Asia; it is primarily used for medicinal purposes, as a sweetener, as an ingredient in herbal teas, and the tobacco industry.
Juniper: Juniperus communis is a temperate and subarctic northern hemisphere species. Its berries are a vital ingredient in gin manufacturing. They are also used as a food flavouring, an essential oil, an ingredient in cosmetics, and have a long history of use in traditional medicines and religion.