News from the Herb Research Foundation on improving world health through herbs and sustainable botanicals from Albania.
The Herb Research Foundation is dedicated to improving world health through the informed use of herbs. Since 1983, HRF has been educating the public, health practitioners, legislators, and the media about the health benefits and safety of herbs, drawing on a specialty botanical library of more than 300,000 scientific papers and multiple online databases. Call (303) 449-2265 to join us in supporting the future of botanical medicine!
For centuries, rural people in isolated areas all over the world supported themselves by harvesting plants and other natural products from the forests and grasslands. By harvesting only for personal use or small local markets, these people maintained a delicate interdependence with the plant resources on which they relied for food, shelter, medicine, and income.
In an ideal world, this scenario may have continued indefinitely. In reality, however, growing population pressure, habitat loss, and escalating commercial demand for wild botanicals have created a critical need for a new vision of sustainable plant production.
“There’s an ongoing revolution in health care that’s gradually replacing conventional notions of health and wellness,” says Maureen DeCoursey, HRF’s new director of sustainable development. “We need to take that idea further so that we are not only taking care of ourselves properly by utilizing more natural therapies but also taking care of the plants and the planet that sustain us.”
A conservation and development expert specializing in non-timber forest products, DeCoursey recently teamed up with HRF President Rob McCaleb and the rest of the HRF staff to expand the foundation’s Division of Sustainable Development. DeCoursey has more than seventeen years of experience in biodiversity conservation and economic development, and her work has taken her to more than fifteen countries in Asia, eastern Europe, Africa, and Central and South America. Under McCaleb’s direction, HRF has been involved in sustainable development projects in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States, and will next undertake a project in the former Soviet Union.
By combining DeCoursey’s expertise in international economic development with HRF’s experience in the natural-product marketplace, the Division of Sustainable Development aims to bridge the gaps between biodiversity conservation, preservation of traditional rural lifestyles, and the need to ensure a continued supply of herbs and other plant products for the worldwide market. The practical goal is to link reputable buyers in the Western world with sustainable harvesters and growers in developing nations.
The issue is not merely guaranteeing a supply of herbs, explains DeCoursey, but making sure that the herbs are produced in a socially, environmentally, and economically responsible manner.
“Are we harvesting the plants in a way that ensures that future generations will have access to them, in a way that does not interfere with the healthy function of natural ecosystems? Are we contributing to the lives of impoverished people around the planet, or leading them further away from self-reliance, with a degraded environment on top of it all?”
These are big, complex questions with a vast array of variables. Each sustainable development project demands a customized approach that takes into consideration the unique social issues, economic realities, and environmental factors that affect a particular nation and its plants. HRF is at the forefront of experimenting with practical, flexible development models that address the needs of the communities, ecosystems, and market forces involved in each region. Often, one of the primary goals in a sustainable development project is to engage the community in protecting its own plant resources in exchange for more secure access to the plants.
Right now, there is a pressing need for sustainable herb development in Europe, a major traditional source of wild-harvested aromatic and medicinal plants for use in foods, beverages, supplements, and household products. Approximately 2,000 species of medicinal and aromatic plants are traded in Europe, including 1,200 to 1,300 that are native to the continent. An estimated 150 species currently are threatened in at least one European country due to over collection from the wild, according to a report by TRAFFIC, the trade-monitoring organization of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union.
Many regions in eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet states are making a transition from communist rule to a free-market economy, have little knowledge of the market, and lack experience running specialized botanical businesses. Careless wild harvesting techniques, such as the practice of ripping plants out by the roots, have severely degraded plant resources in these countries. In Albania, where DeCoursey recently completed a forest-based enterprise development project, almost 100 percent of aromatic and medicinal plants are harvested from the wild.
Albania is one of the world’s foremost suppliers of culinary herbs, including sage, thyme, and oregano. In especially isolated areas of the country, income earned harvesting these plants often exceeds that earned through agriculture, livestock, or wage labor. This is especially true for women, who may have no other sources of income. Sustainable development will help these people preserve their traditional lifestyle by protecting the plant resources upon which they depend for income.
Ultimately, consumers of herbal products will determine whether the world’s wild medicinal and spice plants are protected and preserved for future generations, predicts DeCoursey. “The market is driven by consumers,” she says. “It’s up to consumers to put pressure on manufacturers to use herbs from sustainable sources. Call or write the companies you buy from to ask for documentation that the herbs they use are certified sustainable.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently sent warning letters to food companies that use herbal ingredients, including echinacea, ginkgo, and Siberian ginseng, in beverages. The agency warns that it considers these herbs “novel food ingredients.” In issuing the warning, the agency used the same argument it’s used for years against herbal tea and herbal dietary supplement companies—food additive law. The FDA has a long history of misusing food additive law to attack herbs, supposedly on the grounds of safety—although there is no real safety issue involved.
Regulating food additives became part of the FDA’s mandate in 1958 with the passage of a law introduced by Congressman James Delaney (D–NY), who was concerned about the increasing numbers of synthetic food chemicals—preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, and others—added to foods. While Delaney specifically singled out “food chemicals only” for scrutiny, the agency argued that when an herb is added to water or any other “food,” the herb becomes a food additive. The courts have already chastised the FDA for abusing food additive law in the case of black currant seed oil supplements. The FDA argued that the soft gelatin capsule was the food and the currant seed oil a “food additive.” The judge accused the FDA of a deliberate “end-run around the law” and “an Alice-in-Wonderland approach to regulation.” Ironically, the court also said that claiming the contents of a capsule are a food additive would be like asserting that a tea is a food additive because it is added to water. Perhaps the judge was unaware that this is exactly the position FDA had already taken.
By law, the FDA can’t treat supplements as food additives, but they believe that conventional foods are fair game, including beverages fortified with herbs. There is no clear standard of proof for the safety of food additives—the agency can always demand more proof. Applying for approval through the food additive petition process could be the equivalent of an FDA roach motel for herbs—they go in, but they never come out. A better approach for food companies may be to have non-FDA scientists review the scientific and historical evidence for an herb to determine if it is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Although the FDA can challenge such determinations, this would at least allow scientists to judge herbs based on evidence, rather than prejudice.
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