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New report highlights global trade in wild plant ingredients

26 June 2018

A new report from TRAFFIC: Wild at Home: An overview of the harvest and trade in wild plant ingredients, has been released to coincide with the beginning of FairWild Week 2018.  The report demonstrates how sustainable wild plant harvesting can contribute to wider wildlife conservation goals and why global industry must adapt.

People are utterly reliant on plants for their survival, yet few appreciate that many of the consumer products in common use—ranging from herbal remedies, food, and drink to cosmetics, health supplements, and even furniture—derive from wild harvested plants.

The report highlights a dozen wild plant products consumers and business should look out for in products they use, including liquorice, frankincense, gum arabic, juniper, pygeum, goldenseal, and shea butter.

Of the roughly 30,000 plant species with documented medicinal or aromatic uses, approximately 3,000 are found in international trade, an estimated 60–90% of them harvested from the wild—often with little consideration given to ensure the sustainability of supplies.

“Millions of people rely on wild plant collection both for their healthcare and for their livelihoods—from rural rosehip harvesters in Serbia to baobab fruit collectors in Zimbabwe, and the wide benefits of this harvesting are reaped by consumers across the world,” said Anastasiya Timoshyna from TRAFFIC, a co-author of the report.

“But the industry utilising wild plant ingredients and consumers are paying far too little attention to ensuring plants are being traded responsibly.”

In 2015, the global reported trade for medicinal plants alone was valued at over US$3 billion, a threefold growth since 1999, although the figure is likely to be a significant underestimate, as the customs code used for the analysis does not include all relevant plants. The top exporters were China, India, Canada, Germany and USA, while the top importers were Hong Kong SAR, USA, Germany, Japan and China.

An IUCN Red List analysis by the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group in 2018 found that only 7% of the known medicinal and aromatic plant species have been assessed against extinction threat criteria—and one in five of them was found to be threatened with extinction.

Overharvest and resource mismanagement are two major contributors to species declines. Growing and changing demand for wild plant ingredients often means that traditional sustainable harvesting practices are being replaced by more intensive and destructive alternatives. Examples of this include the use of heavy machinery in the harvesting of wild licorice root Glycyrrhiza spp., or the destructive collection of American Ginseng Panax quinquefolius.

If managed well, however, sustainable wild-harvesting and trade in plant ingredients could provide holistic management for other species and ecosystems, as well as multiple benefits to wild-harvesters and supply chains overall.

A combination of full traceability, compliance with existing regulations (for example for species listed in the CITES appendices), increasing the value to producers, and credible certification schemes are important elements of creating conditions for an all-encompassing “win-win” situation.

Throughout FairWild Week 2018, TRAFFIC and partners will be sharing conservation success stories, demonstrating how implementation of the FairWild Standard ensures sustainable harvesting and trade in wild plants with social, economic and conservation benefits.

“It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that their use of wild plants is responsible in terms of ecological and social sustainability, so we all need to learn about the origin of the products we are using,” said Timoshyna.

“That’s why FairWild week was first conceived—the time has come for consumers to recognise the value of the wild plants in the products they buy,” says Timoshyna.

The week also aims to promote uptake of the FairWild Standard by industry supply chains. Suppliers following the FairWild Standard adhere to strict rules regarding the sustainability of harvesting operations and ensuring the harvesters work in safe conditions and receive a fair and equitable payment for their produce. Products meeting the requirements are FairWild certified, and products containing them can bear the FairWild logo.

“Companies often market their products as being ‘naturally sourced’ or ‘wild’ with little interpretation of what that actually entails: it’s time for consumer pressure to ensure it really means they have been sustainably and ethically traded—if in doubt, look for the FairWild logo on the packaging or ask why it doesn’t appear,” said Timoshyna.


The Wild Dozen – key plants to look out for in your products

This list provides examples of species important in trade, wild-harvested, susceptible to harvesting pressure (e.g. overcollected, vulnerable to unsustainable trade), and/or that are in supply chains problematic for social inequality of trading practices.

  1. Frankincense: an aromatic resin used widely in the cosmetics industry, collected from wild trees in the genus Boswellia, mostly in the Horn of Africa.
  2. Shea butter: extracted from nuts of Vitellaria paradoxa trees in the Sahel region of Africa and exported in large amounts for the food (chocolate) and cosmetics industries.
  3. Jatamansi/spikenard: an essential oil extracted from the rhizomes of Nardostachys jatamansi an herbaceous plant that grows wild at high altitudes in the Himalayas. Used in aromatherapy and cosmetics, mostly in India, but also Europe and North America.
  4. Gum arabic: the resin of Acacia spp. trees used as a stabiliser in food products (E number E414), primarily collected from wild trees in the Sahel region of Africa, often in conflict or post-conflict regions.
  5. Goldenseal: an herbal medicine extracted from the roots of Hydrastis canadensis, an herbaceous plant that grows wild in south-eastern Canada and the eastern USA. Used domestically in large quantities and exported.
  6. Candelilla: a wax harvested from wild Euphorbia antisyphilitica in Mexico for use primarily in cosmetic products; the species is included in Appendix II of CITES.
  7. Pygeum: widely used as an herbal remedy for prostate problems, extracted from the bark of African cherry Prunus africana trees growing in moist forests in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar; the species is included in Appendix II of CITES.
  8. Argan oil: a highly valued oil used in cosmetics and cooking extracted from the nuts of the Argan tree Argania spinosa which grows in the wild only in Morocco.
  9. Baobab fruit: harvested from the African baobab Adansonia digitata a widespread savannah tree; marketed as a super-food and cosmetic ingredient.
  10. Devil’s claw: a herbal remedy used as an anti-inflammatory extracted from the roots of Harpagophytum procumbens a slow-growing plant from arid regions of southern Africa.
  11. Liquorice: large-scale trade in wild-harvested roots of Glycyrrhiza spp., threatened in parts of their range, are used for herbal products, traditional medicines, cosmetics, and food.
  12. Juniper: it exemplifies wild-harvest and trade in popular medicinal and aromatic plants in Europe (although Juniper also occurs in Asia and North America). Commercial wild collection in Europe is declining as people become increasingly urbanised but it is still an important source of income for some communities locally, particularly ethnic minorities such as the Roma. A lack of equitable trade practices means that collectors are often disadvantaged.


Other species in Europe to look out for, are wild garlic, thyme, sage and oregano, as well as rosehips, Leopard’s Bane Arnica montana, elderberries, blueberries, lime flowers, and even dandelions and nettles!

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