Going wild for new opportunities

VC-myrothamnus-flabellifoliusMedeline and her friends in the Chivi district of Zimbabwe collecting leaves and small twigs of the resurrection plant, Myrothamnus flabellifolius, used to treat a wide variety of ailments
© Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe/D Brazier

Sustainable harvesting and processing of medicinal plants for use in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries is providing valuable livelihood opportunities for rural communities.

Worldwide, wild plant resources currently meet 70 to 90% of the market demand for medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) used in the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. MAPs offer multiple opportunities for producers and consumers. But concerns about overharvesting and loss of biodiversity, combined with complex regulations around access and benefit sharing (ABS), have hindered growth in this sector.

Two recent developments, however, are signalling positive change for the sector. The first is the coming into force of the 2010 ‘Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilisation’. The Protocol, which supplements the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), aims to translate the theoretical principles of the CBD into practical guidelines around equitable ABS, thus providing a clear roadmap towards compliance. Having been ratified by over 50 countries, the Protocol came into force on 12 October 2014. The second is the emergence of industry-led certification systems that provide independently verified assurance that plant-derived ingredients have been harvested sustainably and equitably, based on international ABS laws.

The FairWild Standard, for example, administered by the FairWild Foundation, assesses harvest and trade of wild plants against various ecological, social and economic requirements, and has been adopted in numerous countries and contexts. In Morocco, the Standard is being used in implementing the national strategy for the sustainable management and development of MAPs. Meanwhile in Lesotho, it is being used with a specific plant species, Pelargonium sidoides, extracts of which are used both regionally and internationally in remedies to fight colds and winter infections.

Ethical verification of suppliers of plant ingredients is also provided by the Union for Ethical BioTrade, a Swiss-based industry organisation whose members undergo rigorous independent assessments of their adherence to ABS regulations, as well as of the environmental and social sustainability of their ingredient sourcing activities.

“These developments are making it easier for international food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies to invest in sustainable MAP supply chains”, says Gus Le Breton, who heads the research organisation Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ). “That’s good news for rural producers around the world!"

BIZ aims to transform neglected and underutilised indigenous plants into viable commercial crops, providing benefits for rural people and their environment. Devil’s Claw, for example, is a plant that is traditionally used in Africa as a pain reliever and digestive stimulant, but whose products are increasingly being considered as alternatives to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and are already registered as herbal medicines in France and Germany. The most common species (Harpagophytum procumbens) occurs in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, but a second species (H. zeyheri), found in Zimbabwe, has a stronger, more potent active ingredient. This is now attracting further investment, offering communities in the region the prospect of access to new markets.

The potential of MAPs is also evident in the Caribbean and Pacific. In Grenada, the agro-processor Noelville Limited is well known for its nutmeg-based pain relieving spray and cream, Nut-Med. Supplying the company has helped nutmeg farmers to rehabilitate the agricultural economy, badly affected by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Meanwhile, fetau oil, a traditional healing agent from the South Pacific, also produced from a nut, has begun to penetrate the EU and US markets. With support from a German NGO, an oil press has been established in Samoa and potential for greater production exists across the region.

Susanna Thorp

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