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 these plants, many of them threatened, are harvested may be harming 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 have often “gone under the radar,” says Caitlin Schindler, lead author of the report and project manager at Traffic, a nonprofit organization that monitors the sustainability of the wildlife trade. They “sit somewhere in the middle of the ingredient list” on product labels. Even if consumers notice the names of the ingredients, there is no information about what is involved in sourcing or processing them.

For example, the income of some 20,000 Brazilians depends directly or indirectly on the harvest 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 camps in the forests, which provide poor shelter and no access to clean water. Here, workers risk being stung by scorpions, hit by heavy falling fruit, and attacked by jaguars. Once the nuts are sold, importing countries benefit, increasing the price by about 2.5 times, although no further processing is required.

Many plants identified in the report, released in April by Traffic, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Medicinal Plant Specialist Group, are in danger of extinction. The main threats are overexploitation, invasive pests and diseases, climate change, and habitat loss. As with Brazil nuts, harvesting plants for their ingredients can involve child labor and worker rights violations, according to the report. Many of those who harvest are poor, women and live in marginalized rural areas.

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The IUCN has never assessed the conservation status of more than 500,000 regularly traded plant species, meaning it is impossible to know whether their use is sustainable, the report says.

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

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

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

“Historically, the herbal industry has been very secretive,” says Ann Armbrecht, director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, which supports transparency in herbal sourcing. Companies don’t want to share proprietary information and consumers don’t think to asksays Armbrecht, who was not involved in the report. She says that when she started in this field, “there was a lot of discussion about the origin of food, and nobody asked where the chamomile was in their [tea] He came from.”

What should consumers do?

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

Several certification programs assess the sustainability and employment conditions of wild plant supply chains. Among them are the Forest Stewardship Councilthe Rainforest Alliance, fair for lifeand the Union for Ethical Biotrade. fairwilda foundation that evaluates the social and biological risks of wild plants, recommends the best practices for their supply.

Many companies advertise certifications, either on the product label or online. If they aren’t on the list, Schindler encourages people to ask companies how they ensure their products don’t harm biodiversity and that harvesters are paid and treated fairly. “Until businesses get a little more pressure from consumers, we won’t see any change,” he says.

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

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

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here and send suggestions, comments and story ideas to [email protected] Learn about the nonprofit mission of the National Geographic Society at natgeo.com/impact.