Mother Earth Living

News from the Herb Research Foundation

News from the Herb Research Foundation on improving world health through herbs and sustainable botanicals from Albania.

About the Herb Research Foundation

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

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

“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.

Rich Forests, Poor People, and the Global Demand for Botanicals

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

Sustainable Development in Eastern Europe: The Next Frontier

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.

How You Can Help Protect Botanicals

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.”

FDA Goes After Functional Foods

Regulatory update

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.

—Rob McCaleb

  • Published on Nov 1, 2001
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