by Courtney Cavaliere
(This story original appeared in the American Botanical Council’s Herbal e-Gram on December 10, 2009)
As the global market for Chinese herbal medicine continues to rapidly expand, some Asian medicinal plants are increasingly faced with over-harvest, habitat loss, effects of climate change, and other sustainability challenges—perhaps moreso than many herbal practitioners and consumers are aware. A newly-established nonprofit, called Chinese Herb Garden (CHG), intends to disseminate information about such plants’ conservation needs and promote the sustainable use of Asian medicinal flora.
Jasmine Rose Oberste, a licensed acupuncturist, certified herbalist and graduate of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, initiated CHG to fill a gap in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) community. According to Oberste, practitioners, consumers, and others interested in TCM have not had a clear channel of communication regarding the availability and status of many medicinal ingredients. Although courses in TCM schools often broach the topic of endangered medicinal ingredients that are illegal for trade—such as rhino horn and tiger bone—discussion is rarely given to the status of ingredients that are not illegal, even if they have restricted trade. For instance, conservation concerns regarding ingredients listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), such as wild American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), are often overlooked. Similarly, species regionally known to be threatened due to over-harvest, like cordyceps fungus (Cordyceps sinensis), are rarely discussed in the context of conservation.
“In the conservation movement, animals tend to get more attention than plants,” said Oberste, noting that public attention is typically drawn to the plight of such threatened species as pandas, tigers, and rhinos. “While there are a few organizations such as TRAFFIC and WWF that focus on animals, CHG focuses on flora” (e-mail, October 13, 2009).
Oberste and fellow collaborators began developing CHG’s mission and strategic plan in January of 2009. In August, CHG achieved nonprofit status as a project of the Trust for Conservation Innovation. CHG plans to educate diverse audiences about the threats facing Asian medicinal plants through various initiatives. One main project is the creation of a “Red List” of Chinese medicinal herbs. CHG plans to cross-reference the Chinese materia medica with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of species. CHG will then create an interactive map for the organization’s website that will illustrate the regions in which particular herbs are wild collected in China and hotspots where endangered or at risk-species are located.
The organization ultimately intends to promote the inclusion of such information in the herb curricula of North American Chinese medical colleges and the ethics portion of Chinese medical licensing exams. “I am aware that simply sorting through the initial stages of research will take some time,” said Oberste, explaining that approximately 300 Chinese herbs are commonly used, but multiple species are often considered applicable for each herb. “In some cases, one species may be endangered and regulated through CITES, as is Cistanches deserticola, a source of Rou Cong Rong, whereas Cistanches salsa, another source of Rou Cong Rong, is not on CITES,” she continued. CHG’s website (www.chineseherbgarden.org) will evolve to serve as a tool for TCM communities. It will feature interactive maps, images, and profiles of Asian medicinal plants—including their conservation status, geographic distribution, harvest and/or cultivation methods, and medicinal use—and other resources. Representatives of CHG are also writing articles regarding sustainability of Asian medicinal flora, to be published in journals and reprinted on the organization’s website.
Main collaborators for CHG include Oberste and a few dedicated students and alumni from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) of San Francisco. The organization’s advisory board includes experts in the fields of Chinese herbal medicine, horticulture, and conservation. Josef Brinckmann, vice-president of research and development at Traditional Medicinals, said he was happy to join CHG’s advisory board, particularly as the organization’s aims coincide with other sustainability efforts to which he contributes. “The Chinese Herb Garden aims to link harvesters of Chinese medicinal plants with the TCM practitioners (and their patients) in a way that effectively educates about sustainable resource management and long-term survival of plant species,” said Brinckmann (e-mail, November 6, 2009).
“Practitioners and patients often do not know where the plant medicines come from and just how they get to market through the long supply chain. With the increasing global interest in traditional herbal medicines, demand for wild species is increasing, which means that all of the stakeholders (harvesters, processors, traders, practitioners, and patients) need to care about implementation of practical sustainable resource management plans for long-term availability of important medicinal plants for family healthcare.”
But Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine, stated that CHG may not be viable in the long term (e-mail, December 1, 2009). According to Dr. Dharmananda, this is because CHG’s target audience, which includes practitioners of Chinese medicine and their patients, are not directly involved in the issues of endangered species and sustainability of herbal remedies. He stated that those who are involved, such as growers and collectors in China, raw materials importers, and product manufacturers, already have access to such information, while governmental agencies and NGOs of considerable size are involved in monitoring and responding to these problems.
According to Dr. Dharmananda, the matters involved in assuring a sustainable future supply go beyond identifying habitat losses, over-collection, and farming techniques, but also local and large scale economic, political, cultural, and philosophical interpretations of the situation. He added that the idea of assembling various subjects related to Asian medicinal plants and conservation onto the website of a single, small nonprofit could potentially result in superficial coverage of the topics.
CHG is currently interested in attracting data entry and research volunteers, and the organization is accepting donations to help fund the nonprofit’s mission (donations may be made at: www.trustforconservationinnovation.org/chinese-herb-garden.php). Additionally, prints of Oberste’s fine art photography of herb images and scenery are available for purchase through CHG’s website, and sales of those prints are donated to the nonprofit. More information is available from CHG’s website.