Everyday foods and cosmetics that use wild plants may be harming the environment

The chocolate you eat, the moisturizer you use, the tea you drink—these everyday products contain ingredients from wild plants. The way those plants—many of them threatened—are harvested may be damaging the environment and exploiting workers, a recent report found.

The UN-affiliated report by wildlife trade experts highlights 12 plants: frankincense, shea, Brazil nut, juniper, licorice, baobab, argan, candelilla, pygeum, jatamansi, gum arabic, and goldenseal.

Plant derivatives in household products often have “flown under the radar,” says Caitlin Schindler, lead author of the report and a project manager at Traffic, a nonprofit that monitors the sustainability of the wildlife trade. They “sit there somewhere in the middle of the ingredients list” on product labels. Even if consumers notice ingredient names, there’s no information about what’s involved in obtaining or processing them.

For example, about 20,000 Brazilians’ income depends directly or indirectly on the harvesting of Brazil nuts, which are one of the most widely consumed tree nuts in the world and are vulnerable to extinction. Entire families often come from neighboring regions to harvest the nuts, living in temporary forest camps, which provide poor shelter and no access to clean water. Here, workers risk being stung by scorpions, struck by heavy falling fruit, and attacked by jaguars. After the nuts are sold, importing countries profit, marking up the price about 2.5 times, even though no further processing is required.

Many plants identified in the report—published in April by Traffic, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—are threatened with extinction. The main threats are overharvesting, invasive pests and disease, climate change, and habitat loss. As with Brazil nuts, harvesting plants for their ingredients may involve child labor and violations of workers’ rights, according to the report. Many of those who do the harvesting are poor, female, and live in marginalized rural areas.

The IUCN has never assessed the conservation status of more than 20,000 regularly traded plant species, which means it’s impossible to know whether their use is sustainable, the report says.

Meanwhile, trade in wild plants—for aromatherapy, natural medicine, food supplements, and natural beauty products—is booming. U.S. consumers spent more than $11 billion on herbal dietary supplements in 2020—up more than 17 percent from 2019. Plants such as licorice are used in herbal preventatives and remedies for COVID-19, and bark from the soap bark tree, in Chile, is used in the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine.

Local communities have used wild plants—frankincense in Somalia, Brazil nuts in South America, baobab powder in southern Africa—for centuries, but the global demand today puts many at risk of overharvesting.

When those ingredients are exported, however, international customers often have no idea where these products originated.

“Historically, the medicinal plant industry has had a lot of secrecy in it,” says Ann Armbrecht, director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, which supports transparency in herb sourcing. Companies don’t want to share proprietary information, and consumers don’t think to ask, says Armbrecht, who was not involved with the report. She says that when she got her start in this field, “there was so much discussion about where food came from, and nobody was asking where the chamomile in their [tea] came from.”

What should consumers do?

The first step is to “just notice that you’re buying something that has a wild ingredient in it,” Schindler says. She encourages consumers to tell their family and friends and post on social media when they use wild ingredients.

Various certification programs evaluate wild plant supply chains for sustainability and employment conditions. Among them are the Forest Stewardship Council, the Rainforest Alliance, Fair for Life, and the Union for Ethical Biotrade. FairWild, a foundation that assesses both social and biological risks to wild plants, recommends best practices for their sourcing.

Many companies advertise certifications, either on the product label or online. If those aren’t listed, Schindler encourages people to ask companies how they ensure that their products aren’t harming biodiversity and that harvesters are paid and treated fairly. “Until businesses get a bit more pressure from consumers, we won’t see any changes happening,” she says.

Companies that don’t make the effort to learn about the sources of their ingredients will start doing so if consumers demand it, Armbrecht says. “The more companies know that consumers are aware of the difference between wild and cultivated plants,” she says, the more they’ll think, Oh, we should know that too. What are we doing in these regions?”

Consumers shouldn’t stop using these products, Schindler says, “because actually, the ingredients are really critical to a lot of people’s livelihoods.”

Rebecca Hale is a staff photographer at National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.
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