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When it comes to herbs, most of us think it’s only natural to harvest them from the wild. Especially in places like Greece, when you notice herbs like oregano, cistus or thyme, growing even in the most unexpected places like rocky surfaces or on the roadside, tempting you with their abundance and their resilience.
But how sustainable is picking wild herbs nowadays?
Cutting small quantities of herbs from the wild for community needs, is what people always did, without harming biodiversity.
You could argue that our lifestyle now is less connected to nature and only a few people still harvest medicinal plants for personal needs. Even so, demand for herbs increases as we still depend on herbs to address primary health care needs. According to WHO, overall international trade in medicinal plants and their products was US$ 60 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach US$ 5 trillion by 2050.
The vast majority of medicinal plants worldwide are illegally picked in the wild by underprivileged, underpaid workers hired by traffickers who sell them to pharmaceutical and cosmetics firms.
Workers, in a rush to finish before being caught, uproot and kill entire plants instead of cutting them, causing irreversible damage to habitat biodiversity.
Not all countries have legal provisions to regulate the problem of over-harvesting, or species – specific recovery plan carried out.
In Greece there are rules controlling medicinal plant harvesting, allowing it according to season and area (there are areas where collection is completely prohibited) and only in quantities meeting personal needs, unless special permission is granted.
But even if collecting is allowed, uprooting is definitely forbidden.
Yet, despite the ban, illegal uprooting remains the common practice. It has led to significantly decreasing the population of many species such as Sideritis Scardica, wild orchids or Origanum vulgare ssp. Hirtum (our species) to meet the increasing demand for huge quantities of medicinal plants in other countries.
Many people have been arrested during the past years in Greece with big quantities of illegally harvested plants that, according to the authorities, were to be sold for export to pharmaceutical companies worldwide.
Even though it seems like a local problem affecting only countries where medicinal plants grow, it is, in fact, affecting everyone who uses herbal –based medicines or herbal products.
What can consumers do?
We all need to pay attention to the origin of the herbs and herbal products we buy. We, as aetheleon team, choose to cultivate herbs to protect and enrich biodiversity, and we suggest preferring products from cultivated herbs.
Regarding wild herbs, the IUCN Medicinal Plant Specialist Group and other conservation, industry and government organizations developed the Fairwild Standard, to ensure a sustainable wild collection of plants used in food, medicine and cosmetics.
Although competition for time and money is hard, it is promising that there is significant progress in raising awareness and developing new standards.
As Danna J Leaman, who chairs the IUCN’s Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, said: “I can walk to my local supermarket in Ottawa and buy herbal teas with wild collected ingredients that carry the FairWild logo, it’s a start.”
You can read more here