Sustainability in the Field: Regenerative agriculture and biodiversity in the natural products industry

December 4, 2019

When companies talk about environmental sustainability, they tend to talk about it in terms of reduction, avoidance, and maintenance. New conversations, however, are using terms like rehabilitation and regeneration because, let’s face it, sustaining what we have isn’t enough; ideally, we would leave the earth and its resources healthier than we found it. At the center of these conversations are such questions as: How much do we know about the impacts of harvesting? How do we leave the earth and soil better than we found it? How do suppliers maintain a sustainable supply chain when natural disasters and other environmental factors are greatly impacting yields?

Take the world of herbal ingredients. “Herbal product companies are already experiencing disruptions in their supply chains from shortages from unprecedented rains, droughts, fires, hurricanes, and other weather events caused by climate change,” says Ann Armbrecht, PhD, director of the Sustainable Herbs Program. “These disruptions will only increase in the future.” Armbrecht, an anthropologist, founded the Sustainable Herbs Program in 2015 to spread education about the medicinal plant supply chain and garner support for sustainability, ethical sourcing, and transparency in the industry. In 2018, the educational group the American Botanical Council (Austin, TX) added its clout to the program, coming on board as a partner.

The American Herbal Products Association Foundation for Education and Research on Botanicals (AHPA-ERB)—which promotes education and research on medicinal, therapeutic, and health-promoting herbs—funds a lot of harvest-impact studies. “We give money to academics and not-for-profits to collect scientific data in the field to understand how these populations of wild plants are being impacted by harvest,” says Holly E. Johnson, PhD, chief science officer at the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD).

One of AHPA-ERB’s harvest-impact studies is on oshá (Ligusticum porteri), a sacred Native American plant used in herbal supplements. “We have had an ongoing six-year study with Kelly Kindscher, PhD, a botanist at the University of Kansas, and his team of students who have gone out and done [research] in northern New Mexico and Colorado where the herb grows,” Johnson says. “Right now, there’s a forest ban, so we can’t harvest much at all on forest land. But we’re trying to figure out what’s going on. Is there a lot of it out there? If there was a commercial harvest, how much could we take? We’re harvesting different amounts and seeing how the herb recovers over a number of years.”

Wild-harvested herbs are not only affected by climate change, but resource allocation. “There are fewer wild places these days,” Johnson says. “And, of course, the demand for botanicals has gone up. As that happens, you have to keep an eye on it to make sure these wild plants are sustained.”

When it comes to cultivated plants, “At the current rates of soil degradation, the world’s topsoil could be lost within 60 years, a senior UN official has said,” says Armbrecht.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half of the topsoil in the world has been damaged in the last 150 years. Decarbonization, erosion, desertification, and chemical pollution all damage soil. And in addition to the loss of arable topsoil, soil scientists say our food will lack vital nutrients and trace minerals due to the current rates of soil damage.

The herbal industry has an important role to play in supporting biological diversity preservation and regenerative ecosystems. “It’s important because in sourcing raw materials in a responsible way, the industry can be part of regenerating the ecological, economical, and cultural systems of communities, bringing wellness not just to the consumer of the finished product but to all of the communities—human and ecological—involved,” Armbrecht says.

Regenerative Agriculture

According to the nonprofit group Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture is defined “as farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

“It is a holistic land-management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience, and nutrient density,” the group explains on its website.

In a 2017 article they wrote for the publication GreenBiz1, Martin Stuchtey, founder and managing partner of SYSTEMIQ, and Morten Rossé, expert associate principal at McKinsey Center for Business & Environment, urged: “It is time to move away from what has become a linear food system: a take, make, dispose system in which, too often, synthetic inputs go into the land; the land gets overused, and a huge proportion of the food produced is wasted and ends up in landfill. In addition, many nutrients never make it back to the field, stacking up in contaminated sludge. The goal should be to move toward a regenerative model in which land is restored as it is used and in which nutrient and material loops provide much-needed inputs, resulting in a healthier food supply.”

Often these practices involve assessments and certifications to ensure they are being adhered to, Armbrecht says. “And often, the burden—both in time and cost—falls on producer groups and/or growers. Companies can help shift this burden in different ways, from supporting farmers in their network to participating in the increasing number of regenerative farmer-training programs to sharing the costs of participating in certifications like FairWild.” The FairWild Foundation is a third-party certification program designating companies that are sourcing and producing products using socially and ecologically responsible methods.

Ryan Sirolli, global row crop sustainability director for ingredients supplier Cargill (Minneapolis), says that as farmers adapt practices that improve soil health, they help “build drought resilience, increase yield stability, reduce nutrient loss, and increase carbon sequestration”—benefits that could come back to the company itself.

“There is strong evidence to support that these efforts translate into more stable yields with lower input costs,” he says.

Cargill fosters a partnership with the Soil Health Institute, bringing farmers and ranchers together with industry to invest in soil health. One way in which soil health is improved is through cover crops—for instance, typically soybeans are planted one year, followed by corn the next. Planting a cover crop helps bring about many of the benefits mentioned above. “In some locations, yellow peas can serve as the cover crop, allowing farmers to earn additional income, enabling them to grow and harvest three crops over the span of two years. They earn income from an extra crop; plus, yellow peas bring a host of soil health benefits. And, since peas put nitrogen back into the soil, less nitrogen fertilizer is needed to grow corn the next year, saving farmers input costs while improving water quality,” Sirolli explains.

In the Wild

Nuherbs (San Leandro, CA) is a supplier and importer of Chinese herbal ingredients. Wilson Lau, vice president of sales and marketing, explains that the company started going directly to its growers and wildcrafters many years ago to ensure the quality and sustainability of its herbs. “We are just beginning to explore biodynamic farming and regenerative ecosystems,” he says. “However, our sourcing practices are deeply rooted in sustainability and all the different facets of supply-chain security.”

With the help of foundations such as FairWild, Lau says each herb is assessed to confirm it can be harvested sustainably. “The soil, temperature, humidity, terrain, and microclimate all contribute to the potency of the plant,” he explains. “We ascertain the right area where it should be grown for the activity we seek. We ensure it is collected at the correct time, using the best techniques for the plant’s well-being and the herb’s activity.”

AHPA’s Johnson also speaks to the belief that sustainable wild harvesting relates to the power of the plant itself. “[APHA has found that] there’s a real feeling that the conditions in the natural forest where these herbs evolved actually contribute to the healing powers of the plant once harvested,” Johnson says. “So, they’re not seen as just a commodity by people who take them; there’s a sector of people who are into herbs and botanicals who would like to see them harvested from the wild as opposed to bringing them in for cultivation.”

Herbal supplier Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA) works with its partners in China to promote wildcrafting principles. Through its sustainable wildcrafting program, 10%-20% of the material is left on the field to prevent over-harvesting or depletion of the plant-resource biome.

“Since wild plants are often more efficacious, over two-thirds of our products are made from ethically wildcrafted plants,” says Brien Quirk, Draco’s director of R&D. This means that plant materials are only harvested in areas that are not affected by pollution, and only partial harvests of the healthiest plants are taken, among other practices.

“Another interesting component of this program is utilizing the benefits of partial cultivation in wildcrafting by reseeding in areas to help replenish and ensure the plant-stock survival,” Quirk explains. “It’s similar to how birds and wildlife spread seeds by eating them but not fully digesting all of them, which allows the plants to be reseeded and established in new areas.”

The benefits of these practices are many, Quirk says. “Diversified flora and fauna in more wild and sustainable ecosystems allow plants to thrive better by resisting insect attack or fungal diseases that are otherwise more susceptible to spread of diseases or infestations in crop monoculture. With birds, insects, and other wildlife in a more natural setting, no one insect can multiply unchecked as in typical agricultural settings because the more natural prey-and-predator interactions will keep a dominant population in check.”

  1. Stuchtey M and Rossé M. “Cultivating a regenerative food system.” GreenBiz. Published January 28, 2017. Accessed at: