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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Herb Abuse!

Air Date: Week of

For those times when a head cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But some say the new-found popularity of old fashioned medicinal plants also poses a serious threat to some scarce wild species. As Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports, some herbalists are saying the government should now control the picking of rare medicinal herbs.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
In these times, when a cold seems to be coming on, more and more people are reaching for an herbal preparation instead of a box of cold pills. Herbalists are pleased that people are rediscovering the traditional remedies that saw our ancestors through many an illness. But they say the newfound popularity of old- fashioned medicinal plants also poses a grave threat to some scarce wild species. Andrea deLeon of Maine Public Broadcasting reports.

(Man's voice-over: "Ginsana's all natural. No sugar, no caffeine."
Another man's voice: "The key word here is natural." First man's voice: "Ginsana has over 25 years of research." Third man: "Twenty-five years?
That's as long as I've been playing cello." Traffic, honking sounds.
First man: "If you want more energy, try Ginsana for a few weeks and watch your energy level. Feel the difference or your money back.
Guaranteed." Several voices saying, "Ginsana," sequentially.)

deLEON: Herbal remedies are everywhere these days. Radio talk shows hawk everything from saw palmetto to garlic and ginseng. Even drug store chains and discount retailers devote significant shelf space to meet Americans' sudden and seemingly insatiable need for herbal products. Dr. James Lavalle is a naturopathic physician who spends his time training pharmacists and touting the benefits of herbs on behalf of the giant discount chain Rite-Aid and its Vitamin Institute.

LAVALLE: People wanted a safer first line of defense for health care.
Like, I want to try something that's side effect-free if possible. I want to take a natural approach whenever possible.

deLEON: Three years ago Federal rules governing the marketing of herbal products were liberalized. Aggressive ad campaigns catapulted homeopathic and herbal remedies from the hippie fringe to the front page of Newsweek and spurred an industry that does billions of dollars in sales a year now. The problem is that many popular herbs are difficult to cultivate and must be picked in the wild. The increased demand has resulted in heavy harvesting of some species with little regard for the plants' long-term preservation. That's according to Stephen Foster, a botanist who edits a number of journals on medicinal herbs.

FOSTER: Plants don't have soft brown fur and cute little brown eyes, so we simply don't pay attention to plants.

deLEON: Foster cites the case of goldenseal, a plant widely used to boost immune system function. When a European company announced plans to market the herb last year, goldenseal shot from $20 to $100 a pound.

FOSTER: This created 2 situations, one a market shortage because of supply and demand, and two, interest in non-traditional harvesters going out and digging the plant because the price was so high.

(Bottles clinking together)

deLEON: Herbalist Deb Soule has watched the tidal wave of interest in herbs at her business, Avena Botanicals in Rockport, Maine. She sells herbs through a catalogue and small retailers. Soule cultivates as many herbs as she can, but she can't meet the demand for some of the most popular products. If she loses her source of cultivated goldenseal and other endangered herbs, she says she'll stop stocking them, even though dropping the popular products would hurt her business.

SOULE: If I can't find a source for it from an organic grower, then probably I will be without that plant for a few years. And as a business owner, that kind of puts me at risk, because then other people say well you don't have that plant, I'll go someplace else. And it's just a personal choice that I've made. I won't sleep well, feeling like I have contributed to the loss of a plant.

deLEON: Clearly, users of herbs could play a role in protecting the plants. But if you buy your herbs at a major chain, you're not likely to find the information you need to make an informed choice. Rite-Aid spokesman Dr. James Lavalle says the drug store tests herbal products for effectiveness and quality, but none of the labels on products at the Rite-Aid store in Gray, Maine, say whether the product is cultivated or harvested in the wild. The chain itself couldn't answer questions about the origin of the herbs its stocks. Many labels even omit naming the species, so you can't tell whether you're treating your cold with an at-risk species of Echinacea or one that grows like a weed. Stephen Foster says medicinal plants need more protection.

FOSTER: We should treat it exactly the same way that we treat the taking of animals. People should have a license to dig goldenseal. There should be a very specific season, limited to a couple of weeks of the year.

deLEON: Foster recommends that the total harvest should be monitored by a government agency to determine how much wild harvesting the species can sustain without harm. But such a system is unlikely to be adopted any time soon. In the meantime, if you are concerned about plants that may be at risk, state and Federal governments keep lists of threatened species. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea deLeon in Portland, Maine.



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