The Unawareness of Over Harvested Herbs

A few years ago, approximately 74% of American people had a desire to use a more ‘natural approach’ to medicine. As a result, we saw a boom in the herbal market and now currently the US makes 3 billion in herbal product sales.

As the want for herbal medicine increased, the need for herbs has also increased- to a point that we cannot supply what we demand. Over harvesting has become a threat to the biodiversity in areas all around the world and has expanded to the point that many plant species on the verge of extinction. Out the 50,000 species used for medicinal purposes, 10,000 are at risk– that’s every one out of ten species that are endangered.

This statistic will not be static; it will soon rise higher if we do not come to understand the effects of overharvesting and find sustainable ways to gather our herbs. Yet it must be remembered that the former needs to be done before the latter: that is, we must focus on realizing and understanding the problem first.

But who knows and understands our current issue with over harvesting?

In an attempt to target my local community, I found myself in the heart of Morningside Heights, Columbia University. Here, I asked many students what their basic knowledge of herbs was. Many knew what herbs were, but the closest some got to using it was their daily vitamin supplements from Vitamin Shoppe.

However, many who had adequate knowledge about herbal medicine were usually the ones who are actively using it or it was used by their parents, whom were commonly immigrants from countries such as Ecuador or China or first generation children. Many of the students who do actively use herbal medicine confirm that their parents supply it to them, but they are not sure where the herbal medicine came from or even the idea of it being ‘harvested’. To make matters worse, about 98% of these students claim that close family members that are native to local communities outside of the US that prioritize herbal medicine are unaware of problems of over-harvesting in their villages and in their country.

This is a frightening statistic to take, as the bulk of overharvesting happens in parts of Asia, Africa and South America- countries that many of their parents are from. According to World Wide Health Organization (WHO), 80-90% percent of people in developing countries use herbal medicine as their primary source of health. With such a large amount of people using herbal medicine in these countries, how are student’s native parents unconscious of overharvesting? Are the local communities in these countries aware of the effects of overharvesting? Research reveals that many are not aware. One study reveals that 81 % of the individuals from district and national organizations believe that medicinal plants from the Himalayan Mountains are threatened, while 28% of the local people do not.

The Schisandra Fruit is found in the Upper Yangze region in China. WWF's sustainable management modeling has helped to save this fruit from being over harvested by local villages.

If the local people, who are first handedly affected by overharvesting, do not know of the disastrous effects of overharvesting, then how can we fix the problem? It is important to educate the local people of the effects they have on their environment when they over harvest. Many organizations have been working towards teaching local peoples of the impact of over harvesting and helping them harvest and cultivate herbs sustainably. WWF China has been implementing biodiversity conservation and sustainable management into the villages of the Upper Yangtze region, were 75% of China’s medicinal plants are harvested.

But wait- what can us common-city dwellers do about this problem?

Ask yourself this (and the company who supplies you your products) every time you walk into Vitamin Shoppe, a small herbal medicine store, and any store that sells organic products: where did the plant material come from? Is it harvested sustainably?