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January 30, 2023
Increased climate variability is raising the risk of shortages in botanical ingredients and increased costs in the near future, experts told Natural Products Insider.
Several recent news reports have served to bring the issue into sharper focus. Western states that take water from the Colorado River are expected to miss a Jan. 31 deadline to devise a plan to reduce the amount of water they take from that diminishing resource. Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the system, has been shrinking for years in the face of a severe regional drought that is now into its third decade.
The federal government is expected to step in and begin the process of mandating its own plan for cuts. This is a first in the history of the system, which began with the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
Another data point getting attention is how increased climate variability is threatening the supply of one of the most popular botanical items of all—coffee. Areas where the plants are grown have been subjected to droughts paradoxically coupled with damaging short-term rain events, along with temperature fluctuations—too hot or too cold. Cocoa production has been similarly threatened.
This latter news may finally serve to wake up the general public—and even some companies in the botanical supply game—to the growing risks of a more tempestuous climate, said botanical supply expert Chris Kilham, who distributes information under the name Medicine Hunter.
“I always wonder what is it that will shake people out of their climate change somnolence, and if they can’t get their cup of coffee, whoa, this may be it,” Kilham told Natural Products Insider.
Kilham has made field trips for years on his own accord and on behalf of clients to seek out new sources of medicinal plants and quantify and characterize those supplies. Along the way, he said, he’s been conducting his own climate change survey.
“For about 10 years now, I’ve been asking people around the globe if in their local regions things have been staying the same in terms of weather,” Kilham shared. “The universal answer is that things have either changed somewhat or they have changed a lot.”
“People say things like, ‘We used to get the rainy season in May, but now it comes later.’ Or, ‘It is inconsistent and rains all at once,’” he added.
Ann Armbrecht, Ph.D., director of the Sustainable Herbs Program (run in collaboration with the American Botanical Council), said she has witnessed the damaging effects of severe weather on the supply of botanical ingredients.
A recent field trip she and others took to Nepal was curtailed by intense rains that washed out roads, making it impossible to access some areas where high-altitude plants of interest are collected. Armbrecht, who approaches the supply of botanical ingredients from an anthropological perspective, said these events have real human costs.
“The rains came later and the roads were washed out at festival times,” she said. “That’s the whole economy for some of these regions.”
Armbrecht disclosed what she heard on the ground in Nepal is similar to what Kilham’s sources have been reporting.
“They talked about the destruction of crops and disruption of harvests because the rains [are] coming at different times,” she said.
Wilson Lau, president of botanical supplier Nuherbs, said the rate of change seems to be accelerating, which complicates business forecasting.
“As botanical experts, we are extremely reliant on weather and its impact on our crops, so have always monitored it,” Lau said. “However, in the past two or three years, we are seeing more extreme weather that is having a wider impact across more crops. I can’t even begin to list the number of growing areas and crops that have been impacted in the past several years. Last year alone, crops were impacted in China, Europe, the United States and Pakistan, just to name a few places. The scope is much larger than in the past because there are more and more climate events, causing billions of dollars in damages.”
Similarly, Kilham said intense rains a few years ago wiped out the ashwagandha crop in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, which has an arid climate.
“You don’t typically get intense rains like that in Rajasthan,” he said.
One company trying to help with the forecasting piece is ingredient supplier Cepham, which has operations in New Jersey and India. The company has developed a service it refers to as Cepham Sense, which distributes climate change risk-management information to subscribers.
According to Cepham founder and president Anand Swaroop, Ph.D., the reports are informed by data collected in the field and from a number of official sources.
“Cepham has also been working with the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and weather forecasting agencies from across the world to access accurate data that can be used to anticipate disruptions due to heavy precipitation or floods,” he said.
Swaroop said the company started developing the resource as it dealt with its own supply chain forecasting problems.
“Climate change was not big on our horizon. But we started to see a lot of variation in the material coming into our factory in India,” he revealed. “It was the norm that it would take about 30 kilos of turmeric roots to make 1 kilo of extract. Now it might be 30 kilos or it might be 50 kilos.”
Swaroop said further investigation revealed the farmers hadn’t changed when they planted or how they cared for the crops. Something else had to be at work that affected the quality of the roots.
Swaroop said he’s agnostic on the question of whether this is because of “human-induced climate change” or mere natural climate variability.
“I don’t get into the controversies about what is happening or not happening. I’m more interested in what will affect my bottom line,” he said.
Armbrecht said the magnitude of the issues can at times seem overwhelming. But she said she takes comfort in the fact that the challenges have fostered new avenues of cooperation that may help mitigate these risks in the future.
Her recent Nepal trip, for example, included a visit to an organic ginger field project run by longtime German plant-based ingredients supplier Martin Bauer that included two of its customers, Pukka Herbs and Yogi Tea. She said it was unusual to see a supplier hosting even one customer on that kind of trip, much less two that compete in the marketplace.
“I do still think there are a lot of things that the industry can do, and collaboration is the first part,” Armbrecht said. “I think these kinds of shifts are essential for the long-term viability of their businesses.”
Kilham concurred, saying the days of just picking up the phone to order supplies when you need them may be drawing to a close.
“Right now, we are in a situation in which companies that wish to survive will have to become integrally involved in field programs that are working on sustainable agricultural practices,” he said. “The companies that remain in the habit of just calling Joe on the phone to say, ‘Send me some more of whatever,’ they are going to die.”
Senior Editor, Informa
His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.
The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.
Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.
In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.
When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.
Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.
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