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Business.2010 newsletter: Agribusiness

Volume 3, Issue 2 - February 2008: Agribusiness

Sustainable wild collection of plants - make way for a new standard

“Organic”, “Fair Trade”, “Ethically Sourced”, “Safe and Effective”… herbal medicines, cosmetics, and other plant-based products are marketed under a growing number and diversity of claims and labels. What is behind these labels? Most consumers don’t know that more than 70 percent of the plant species included in these products are wild collected from natural habitats, and many assume that these labels promise a production process that is ecologically sustainable, regardless of the source of the ingredients. They don’t. Not yet. But the future may be different.

An estimated 50,000 - 70,000 plant species are used in traditional and modern medicine throughout the world, and many more species are important to the growing market for plant-based cosmetics and other products. These species make an essential contribution to healthcare, provide an important source of income to rural harvesters, and fuel a growing botanical products industry. Approximately 3,000 of these plant species are traded internationally. The annual global export of medicinal plants is valued at USD 1.2 bn (based on customs value declarations — the real situation is likely higher based on actual invoiced prices).

The Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) predicts that at least 15,000 plant species used in herbal products could be threatened, many as a direct result of unsustainable collection practices. This pattern is likely to continue into the future due to the costs (time, research, technology, land, and other agricultural inputs) of domestication and cultivation of species. Moreover, cultivation is not necessarily the most beneficial production system for many plant species. For many collectors, economic benefits and conservation incentives are derived from sustainable wild collection. Cultivation is unlikely to meet the demand for raw plant material, particularly for species that are slower growing, that are used in low volumes, that do not command sufficiently high and stable prices in the global market, or that are believed to be more potent in their wild form.

Existing labels
Organic standards have been developed to promote practices that will ensure the environmental and health security of agricultural systems. According to the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), organic certification organizations are asked to include wild-collected materials and production processes because the scope of the organic regulations of the EU and USA include both cultivated and wild crops. Most organic standards address a menu of market expectations related to product safety, handling, and quality: for example, that products will be free of residues from conventional pesticides and fungicides; that fertilizers used are not made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; and that no genetically engineered components are used. However, these standards are uniformly weak in defining important ecological criteria such as sustainable levels of harvest for wild-collection plant species. We have found the same weakness in good agricultural and collection practice (GACP) guidelines, fair trade and ethical sourcing standards, and in standards promoting the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines. Standards promoting good forest practices, such as the family of certification systems and labels implementing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) criteria for sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), do address ecologically sustainable collection practices more directly, but are difficult to apply to wild-collection situations that are not part of an organized forest management system.

Supporting sustainable wild collection
Industry, governments, organic certifiers, resource managers and collectors are concerned about declining populations and supplies of medicinal and aromatic plants, and are searching for a means to assess whether wild collection is sustainable. Over the last three years, the organizations we represent — the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), TRAFFIC — the wildlife trade monitoring network, the Institute for Marketecology (IMO), the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) and Traditional Medicinals, a private company– have been consulting with many other conservation organizations, industry associations and companies, certifiers, and other stakeholders in the herbal products market.

Many assume that these labels promise a production process that is ecologically sustainable, regardless of the source of the ingredients. They don’t. Not yet. But the future may be different

The result of our consultation and collaboration is the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP), a set of principles and criteria that enable industry, resource managers, collectors, and other stakeholders to assess and monitor the sustainability of wild resources and collection practices. The ISSC-MAP focuses on ecological aspects of good collection practices (GCP), which are often neglected: the need for thorough but cost-effective resource assessments and the determination of sustainable yields. Social and economic factors are also addressed. ISSC-MAP builds on but does not replace existing principles, guidelines, and standards for sustainable forest practices, organic production and good agricultural practices, fair trade, and product quality. While this standard has been developed with a focus on medicinal and aromatic plants, its theme and content are relevant to any plant resources subject to local and commercial use through wild collection.

Implementation of the new standard
Version 1.0 of the ISSC-MAP was launched in February 2007 during Biofach, an international organic products trade fair in Nuremburg, Germany, and is now available for application to MAP collection operations. Several implementation projects are being developed to test applicability in a variety of geographic, ecologic and socio-economic conditions for collection of medicinal and aromatic plants. These projects address alternative pathways for implemeting the ISSC-MAP, including: product and process certification; coordination with permit systems for NTFP collection in managed reserves and protected areas; and as a reference for industry codes of practice. The outcomes of these projects and other experiences with using ISSC-MAP will be used to develop a guidance handbook, case studies, and models for good collection practice. This experience will also be used to further refine the standard, with Version 2.0 anticipated in 2009.

This period will also be used to develop an appropriate business model for ISSC-MAP. The aim is to ensure that the standard itself operates on a sustainable basis in order to deliver sustainable use and conservation of medicinal and aromatic plants, while meeting the needs of the different stakeholder groups.

Danna J. Leaman, PhD is Chair, IUCN-SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group and Research Associate, Canadian Museum of Nature.

For more information on the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, contact Britta Pätzold or Susanne Honnef (WWF Germany and TRAFFIC, MAP-Standards-Criteria@wwf.de). All ISSC-MAP documents are available from: http://www.floraweb.de/map-pro.