Sustainability in the herb trade

Sourcing herbs directly from growers and wildcrafters requires a partnership that is based on responsible stewardship to both prevent over-harvesting and ensure quality. The FairWild Standard and certification system in China is an effort in that vein.

Wilson Lau, CEO, Nuherbs

July 24, 2020

5 Min Read
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If you’ve been to the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Botanical Congress program held the day following SupplySide West each year, you’ve likely seen a panel discussion on sustainability aspects of the herb trade. Even for people in the herb business who are inherently concerned about continued availability of the botanicals they sell, these sessions motivate attendees to be even more actively involved in protecting the herbs of the world. I believe multi-generational thinking about sustainability is imperative.

We import herbal ingredients for finished product manufacturers, as well as supplies used by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners, directly from China. I’m the third generation of my family in our business, which began with the TCM practice my grandmother, Dr. Bing Yin Lee, founded in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1974. She was one of the first female doctors to graduate from the Chinese Medical Institute of Shanghai, in 1935.

My mother and father took over sourcing and importing the herbs she used, and opened a TCM pharmacy in Oakland, California, which grew into Nuherbs. Today, as a supplier of herbal ingredients to brands, we still have close relationships with growers and harvesters in China dating back to those early years. We work with them far in advance each year to secure raw materials of the quality we require. Sustainable practices are part of the arrangement.

When you are involved with sourcing herbs directly from growers and wildcrafters, you must be partners in responsible stewardship, honoring the gifts of nature and using them conscientiously. It’s essential to engage in practices that both prevent over-harvesting and ensure quality. Specifically, each herb must be assessed to confirm it can be harvested sustainably, and it’s important to support and be involved with organizations that do this.

We support the FairWild Foundation, a Swiss-registered nonprofit organization that maintains the FairWild Standard and promotes its uptake worldwide, with one current focus on introducing the FairWild certification system in China. Events they organize are enlightening and helpful, such as a market promotion and best practice sharing workshop in Kunming, China, winter before last. We find it valuable to engage with the FairWild Advisory Panel, a platform created to provide an additional source of strategic and technical guidance to the Board of Trustees.

One reason we have been involved with FairWild is to help protect future supplies, because being able to source herbs from their original growing area is an essential component of the specific effects TCM herbalists seek from those botanicals. Geo-authenticity, which in TCM is sometimes called Di Dao (authentic source), is the principle that herbs wildcrafted or cultivated where they naturally grow will have better potency and authenticity compared to those cultivated in non-native locations. The temperature, soil, terrain, micro-climate and humidity all influence potency of the plant. For the plants to continue to thrive, the entire ecosystem must be protected, requiring a multipronged approach, such as that advocated by FairWild.

It’s important to be aware that for wildcrafters around the world, harvesting wild herbs forms an important part of their livelihood, which is why fair trade is crucial to sustainability. Equitable benefit-sharing and social sustainability requirements provide assurance that people involved in harvesting of wild plants benefit fairly, making ecosystem preservation in their best interest.

Sustainable harvesting of wild plants can provide an incentive to maintain the habitats for the benefits of other species, supporting whole ecosystems. Sustainable collection practices of wild botanicals impact entire ecosystems, far beyond an herb itself.

One example that explains the interconnectedness is that the sourcing areas of Schisandra chinensis overlaps with the habitats of Amur (Siberian) tigers; the undermining of the ecosystem for one species impacts them all. Taking a broader view, areas rich in wildlife and plant life harbor a wealth of critically important goods and services upon which millions of people depend. The interconnectedness is undeniable.

China has a sustainable land management plan for the forests allocated to timber production, which offers a more thoughtful approach to land use than is usual in many regions. We participate in this program to grow our organic ginseng; it gives us access to nutritiously dense land, which is then returned to forest. The government auctions off the right to grow ginseng on land allocated to timber companies. After timber companies have cleared the trees, we will go in and plant ginseng for four to six years. As soon as we begin preparing the land and start to plant ginseng, we also plant four different species of trees, which we nurture alongside the ginseng. After our ginseng harvest, the land is returned to the government, and the trees grow back into a forest.

More suppliers are providing transparency about their operations as consumers ask brands about their environmental policies. Our customers show great interest in sustainability; for the most part, sustainability has always been part of their identity. Some of our customers have been working on sustainability and sound environmental initiatives for decades. For many of us in the herb industry, this is part of who we are.

We have been proponents of this for many years because at the farm and wildcrafter level we get a firsthand view of the impact of usage. Sometimes the herbs that you think shouldn’t be impacted are and vice versa, so you need to be close enough to have accurate information. We all must contribute to the sustainability of herbs, if we wish to have continual access to them. By purchasing herbs from companies that follow these best practices, customers participate in ensuring the future of these plants.

Wilson Lau, vice president, is the third generation of his family to lead Nuherbs. Lau is a member of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) board of trustees, and is an ISO TC 249 U.S. delegate, helping to set the U.S. position on a variety of international standards for TCM.

About the Author(s)

Wilson Lau

CEO, Nuherbs, Nuherbs

Wilson Lau, CEO, is the third generation of his family to lead Nuherbs, a Chinese herb ingredient company founded as a pharmacy in Oakland, California’s Chinatown to provide TCM herbs to the patients of his grandmother, Dr. Bing Yin Lee. Lau is a member of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) board of trustees, and is an ISO TC 249 U.S. delegate, helping to set the U.S. position on a variety of international standards for TCM.

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