COVID-19 And The Botanical Industry

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What Can I Do? 

As COVID-19 has made starkly clear, we are all interconnected. And as communities around the world rush to flatten the curve, we see more starkly perhaps than ever before the ways our individual behavior impacts the whole. As Otto Scharmer, Co-founder of the Presencing Institute, says, “This is an amazing behavior on a scale that is unprecedented. And it allows us to realize if we can do it in this case, we can do it on anything that we as a community put our mind on.”

We are in an unpredictable supply pattern, so anticipate shortages, especially for herbs used to support immune health and respiratory health. Leslie Gallo, President of Artemis International, Inc., reported an exponential increase in requests for their elderberry ingredients. Phil Prather, CEO of Down Under Enterprises, an Australian company that sells wholesale Australian essential oils and botanicals, said that unprecedented demand like this blows any forecasts out of the water. From January to February 2020, they sold two years’ worth of tea tree oil to Asia. Mitch Covin, CEO of Vitality Works, a contract manufacturer of extracts and syrups, bought enough elderberry to last, he thought, three years. He now expects to go through it all in four months.

At the Sustainable Herbs Program, we believe that when we choose to use products made with medicinal plants for our own wellness, we become responsible for ensuring the well-being of everyone involved in bringing these products to market. Now, as demand for herbal products spikes due to COVID-19, this responsibility to the plants and people is even more urgent.

As users of these products, what can we each do to help the botanical industry truly be one that builds health and wellness for everyone involved?

Awareness

Awareness of what is happening is the first step to changing our behavior. Several recent articles have highlighted issues to pay attention to during the recent surge in demand for immune-supporting herbal remedies.

  • Addressing the impacts of COVID-19: Herbal companies brace for what’s ahead – In a soon to be released HerbalEGram article, Karen Raterman discusses the impacts of COVID-19 on the botanical industry in general and supply chains of medicinal plants in particular. Herb companies are being hit in three ways: (1) addressing supply chain disruptions, (2) adapting to new standards for keeping workers safe while staying in production, and (3) addressing the spike in demand. Complete article coming soon.
  • Update from the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program Regarding BAPP’s Role in the COVID-19 Pandemic – In an American Botanical Council Member Advisory, the ABC-AHP-NCNPR Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program (BAPP) expresses their concern about the integrity of the botanical supply chains and value networks due to disruptions in global supply chains because of COVID-19. “Our expectations for near-term supply chain strategies include the need for heightened quality control vigilance and diligence, particularly related to establishing the proper identity of botanical raw materials, extracts, and essential oils.” Read more about BAPP’s concerns and resources in this article published by NutraIngredients-USA, here.
  • COVID-19—the role of wild plants in health treatment and why sustainability of their trade matters _ Anastasiya Timoshyna from TRAFFIC discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the use of wild plants as herbal ingredients in the formulations for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as well as other herbal-based products around the world. She discusses what is known about the use of herbal ingredients in TCM in addressing the COVID-19 disease so far, and what safeguards can be put in place moving on to ensure that these and other wild plant resources are available in the long-term to support healthcare.”
  • Echinacea demand spike likely to cause bottlenecks, price increases—NutraIngredients-USA writes about how the rapid increase in demand for echinacea products is putting strains on the supply system.

Pay Attention To Quality And Sustainability

All products are not equal. As is usually the case, you get what you pay for, both in terms of quality and in terms of ethical standards, such as how a company cares for the people, the plants, and the planet. It is never the time to buy lower quality product. Now is especially not that time.

Products that cost more typically do so for a reason. We prefer to buy from companies that have rigorous quality control and sustainability standards to ensure that the finished product contains the identity and quality claimed on the label and that sustainability standards are adhered to. Supply and demand pressures on raw material sources may create situations in which price is not as reliable a predictor of adherence to quality standards. Demand in the face of short supply may influence a rise in price of every grade and quality of raw materials.

In that case, third-party sustainability standards help to provide assurance that quality standards have not been compromised.

Go Out of Stock Or Compromise Standards?

Sourcing high quality medicinal plants takes time—time for plants to grow and time to develop the relationships on which sourcing high quality botanical ingredients depends. And in the current market, time is one thing companies don’t have.

As companies currently anticipate shortages in key herbs, they may need to choose whether to continue to meet the demand or go out of stock until they can find herbs that meet their specifications. There can be great differences in the quality between products made with raw material bought on the open market and medicinal herbs bought through certified or long-standing established supply networks which have been built by building direct relationships between product manufacturers and suppliers.

Leadership Matters

Erin Smith, Director of Sustainability at WishGarden Herbs, says, “We spend time making sure the plants we purchase are grown or harvested in the right way, i.e., according to our own specifications, and sustainably. What do we do now when herbs from those suppliers run out? Do we buy from sources where we can’t be so sure in order to fulfill customer’s orders? Or do we go out of stock until the plants are available again from sources we trust? It’s not an easy decision to make. What if that product is a best-seller for the company and going out of stock means taking a financial hit?”

The answer to these questions will likely differ from herb to herb and product to product. These are hard decisions that each company has to make on a case by case basis.

Some companies may instead decide to keep an item in stock. It can be difficult for consumers to know when a company has compromised their supply standards. Each company must grapple with such decisions based upon compliance with their own standard operating procedures, corporate standards, and/or ethics. Those I spoke with said that companies that may compromise quality standards are likely to be the ones that are always willing to cut corners and cash in on the current spike in consumer demand.

Leadership and ownership matter as well. Who ultimately makes the decisions for a company? Are decisions based solely on increasing shareholder profit or, as with companies that are certified B corps, do they now have a clause requiring that they consider the impacts of our day-to-day management decisions on all stakeholders, including the environment.

Longterm Impacts

David Bunting, VP of Botanical Affairs at Herb Pharm, said that until now they are selling what they already had in stock. They are simply going through it more quickly than expected. Longer-term impacts will become clearer over the summer and fall, both in how the demand goes and also in how social distancing impacts whether wild collectors can go out to harvest, processing facilities can continue to operate, and whether there are workers to plant new herbs at farms.

Growers may end up planting more of particular plants to meet a demand that will have dropped off by the time the crops are ready. They may then get stuck with a lot of plant material and no buyers.

The pressures on pricing that companies already face from distribution channels like Amazon will only get more difficult. Attention to and investment in sustainability initiatives are on hold especially as smaller companies shift their attention to survival mode. Erin Smith said she hopes that in the long run this will make her work easier because sustainability will be in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

How Our Actions Matter

We can also ask what are the outcomes of my actions for people, plants and planet? And how can I take actions that bring in the outcomes that I want? Here are some simple steps we each can take as we each try to respond to the challenges posed by COVID-19. 

  • Plant a garden in your yard or in pots in a window. Include medicinal plants: thyme, lemon balm, garlic, oregano, and rosemary are good herbs to start with.
  • Don’t panic-buy and don’t hoard.
  • Be patient. Everyone I spoke with said they are doing the best they can to meet this spike in demand. They are also working hard under stressful conditions to keep their employees safe while continue to produce products.
  • Buy your herbs from companies with herbalists that source high quality, certified organic, or third-party certified sustainably-sourced wild ingredients. They will cost more but you are likely to get a product that you can trust. Rigorous internal quality control standards help to ensure that high quality ingredients you expect are actually in the bottle. If those companies are out of stock of the product(s) you prefer, find out whether they can offer alternatives to your first choice. Or wait until the product you want is back in stock.
  • Look for alternatives to wild-harvested plants, such as those that are on the United Plant Savers (UpS) “at-risk” or “to watch” list If you need to purchase a product with these ingredients, call the company and ask questions. You may not be able to speak to a person who actually knows the answers to your questions, but finished product companies do say that consumers calling and asking questions make a difference. Do call or email and ask:
    • Do you know where the plants are from? Is it the same source you normally buy from or different? If different, how have you verified that they meet your quality and sustainability specifications?
    • If the plants are wild-harvested, how are you ensuring that they have been sustainably and legally harvested?

What World Do We Want To Create?

It is difficult to see beyond this moment, but it is one many of us have known was coming. And so the questions become: How can we respond to this crisis in a way that reflects the world we want to call into being? What seeds can we plant now, literally and figuratively, to be better prepared in the future? Can we learn to better care for our families at home, to reduce the burden on hospitals? What remedies, soups, herbal teas, nutritional food, can we learn to make from foods grown in our regions or, better yet, in pots in our own yards? And then, how can we use the resources we do have to purchase products from companies whose values and practices reflect the world we want to help create?

To learn more about how we are thinking about how to best respond to the coronavirus, listen to Ann Armbrecht’s conversation, “From Consumers to Citizens: The Culture of Sustainability,” with Jen Frey from the Organization of Nature Evolutionaries.

Ann Armbrecht is a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through her work with plants and plant medicine. The Sustainable Herbs Project is a multi-media project seeking to launch a consumer movement supporting high quality herbal remedies, sustainable and ethical sourcing, and greater transparency in the botanical industry.

This article was republished from Sustainable Herbs Project.

See also:
Slow Medicine: A Conversation With J. Ladd Bauer MD.
Unilever Buys Pukka – What Can We Learn?