Wildcrafting is important to the supplement industry even as threats to the craft grow.
At the rate things are going, it may be only a matter of time before AI starts generating herbs and botanicals from scratch in a lab. So given that looming fate, why would the wellness industry still lean on as ancient a practice as wildcrafting to procure botanical ingredients?
Perhaps because “ancient” doesn’t equal “ineffective” when it comes to sourcing medicinal and aromatic plants, or MAPs. Indeed, wildcrafting has persisted as long as it has precisely because it yields desirable results: herbal and botanical ingredients that sometimes just aren’t attainable via other means.
As such, Edward J. Fletcher, a wildcrafting expert, president of Native Botanicals Inc. (Banner Elk, NC), and chair of the American Herbal Products Association’s (AHPA; Silver Spring, MD) botanical raw-materials committee, exalts wildcrafting as “a craft—something that’s honed and improved the more wildcrafters perform their task. So in my opinion, wildcrafting should be more valued and appreciated than it currently is.”
To be fair, wildcrafting isn’t utterly bereft of value or appreciation. In fact, wild plant populations make up “a significant portion” of the global botanical supply in terms of both species number and traded volume, claims Josef A. Brinckmann, chair, board of trustees, American Botanical Council (ABC; Austin, TX).
Data amassed over almost 20 years of research1-4 suggest that as much as 87.5%–95.5% of the medicinal plant species in use worldwide—though not necessarily in global import or export commerce—likely come entirely from wild collection, Brinckmann says.
But he’s quick to caution against conflating percentage of plant species with percentage of traded volume, as his queries to major international MAP exporters indicate that 60%–70% of “traded volume” comes from cultivated MAP crops, while only 30%–40% of that volume grew wild.
Regardless, Brinckmann concludes, “It’s not an either/or question of farmed versus wild.” One way or the other, wildcrafted product is important to the sector.
But just what makes a MAP “wildcrafted” in the first place?
Technically speaking, such a plant would be neither planted nor cultivated. And that serves as an adequate definition as far as it goes. But in an age when wild plants and the people who collect them face challenges from multiple fronts, a more holistic definition must go farther.
Increasingly, it does. As Brinckmann says, “A number of relevant sustainability standards applied to the wild collection of medicinal and aromatic plants provide definitions, criteria, and indicators for compliance to enable independent third-party inspection and certification of wild-collection operations by accredited control bodies.”
At a minimum, those criteria reflect the USDA National Organic Program’s wild-crop harvesting standard, he notes, which since 2000 has guided the sustainable wild-resource management of wild-harvested crops.
But while such standards protect wild plants and the environments that shape them, they leave open questions around wildcrafting’s economic and social considerations. And here, Brinckmann says, other organizations have filled the gap.
Take the Switzerland-based FairWild Foundation, which in 2006 published its FairWild Standard version 1.0, taking inspiration from International Labor Organization and fair-trade principles to promote a more human-centered approach to wild-species collection.
Meanwhile, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, in partnership with such NGOs as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and TRAFFIC, released in 2008 the International Standard for the Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants version 1.0, or ISSC-MAP.
As Brinckmann recounts, when those two initiatives merged, a revision process began that ultimately culminated in 2010 in the FairWild Standard version 2.0, which to this day outlines harvest and trade practices that maintain wild plant populations and benefit rural producers alike.
All of which is a complicated way of saying that wildcrafting is…well, complicated, both in theory and on the ground.
And it’s only getting more so. “A number of factors threaten wildcrafting traditions in rural and remote areas,” Brinckmann warns, with evolving land-use policies and the steady migration of young people from rural to urban areas chief among them.
“If there are other economic opportunities,” he explains, “many young people would rather take jobs in the city than be in remote meadows and forests during late spring and summer.” The upshot: “One of the main problems facing ingredient suppliers is a labor shortage in rural areas during the wild-collection seasons.”
Given that medicinal-plant quality often reflects the biodiversity of the native harvest area, Brinckmann adds, documented cases of recent and rapid biodiversity loss—such as “the alarming rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon during the Bolsonaro administration,” he says—also merit concern.
And while some of the crops affected may come under cultivation, if farm conditions don’t match those of the natural habitats, “the environmental stressors that trigger the formation of certain secondary metabolites in similar amounts and proportions as would occur in wild populations may or not be present,” Brinckmann cautions.
Underlying this all, of course, is climate change, and wildcrafting communities are already suffering the consequences—for example, in central Appalachia, where the “historic massive floods” of 2022 hit Eastern Kentucky’s wild-herb harvesters hard, Brinckmann says.
As if that weren’t enough, climate change has made predicting harvests less of a science than a guessing game. “Some wild plants have a very short annual window—maybe two to three weeks while a tree is in bloom,” Brinckmann notes. Absent skilled labor at just the right moment, a harvest may be lost.
Twists and Turns?
And don’t think the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t made its presence felt. As Fletcher says, “There have always been challenges to botanical sourcing, but the pandemic added additional ones.”
Case in point: Extraordinary demand for “COVID-support–related” botanicals disrupted supply chains, he recalls, and those disruptions “have still not completely settled down.”
To some extent, wildcrafting’s economics made them inevitable, Fletcher continues, as it’s the buying public and not the wildcrafter who determines demand. “So above and beyond normal purchasing,” he explains, “if a fad pops up, or someone in the spotlight promotes a botanical—or if another pandemic occurs—demand could increase dramatically. And if it’s not the harvest season, it could take another 12 months for supply to catch up.”
That said, uncertainty isn’t unique to wildcrafting, and as far as Brinckmann’s concerned, “I’m not sure there are more twists and turns when procuring wildcrafted ingredients than when procuring farmed ones.”
After all, very little speculation occurs in the wildcrafted market, he says. Most wild-collection operations “aren’t in a position to hold large uncommitted quantities” and find it more advantageous to collect quantities that buyers contracted for in advance, he says, while harvesting a small cushion “to account for post-harvest processing loss or possible demand spikes between harvests.”
“Wild collection also generally occurs on a weigh-and-pay basis,” Brinckmann continues, “meaning that the first company in the value chain has a scale and a wallet, and when harvested material comes in from the meadows and forests, collectors expect to be paid in cash on the spot.”
So rather than forecast supplies and inventories, wild-herb buyers would be wise to make “firm contractual commitments” earlier, he wagers, and maybe even offer some form of pre-financing at harvest “when the supplier needs cash on hand to secure the wild crops as they come in.”
But whether one trades in farmed or wild-collected product, “Supply-chain stability, visibility/traceability, and transparency…Quality and price depend on similar factors: the right relationships for access to the resource,” Brinckmann declares.
And given that the MAP species best suited to cultivation have already gone that route, “Access to certain MAP species will likely always depend on sustainable wild collection,” he predicts.
Which is nothing to lament. “By committing to sources of sustainably managed and collected wild plants,” Brinckmann says, “companies and individuals play a small but meaningful role in helping prevent destructive land-use change, protect biodiversity, protect pollinator survival, slow the climate crisis, and benefit rural economies. That’s all good stuff!”