Increasing demand for wild plants – as ingredients for food, cosmetics and wellbeing and medicinal products – can put species at risk, as well as the communities that depend on them. The FairWild standard promotes the sustainable use of wild-collected ingredients
Around 6,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution swept across Europe and into Britain. Farming transformed the landscape, and the lives of the population. The old way of the hunter-gatherer, which had been the way of humankind since the dawn of the species, faded away, along with the forests which had sustained it.
But not completely.
Some of that ancient way of life remains – and traces of it are here in our kitchens, on our herb and spice racks, and in our cups of herbal tea.
Whether it’s tropical forests, English hedgerows, or even waste ground in our cities, the fragments of the wild that still persist today form a natural store cupboard for some of the 60,000 or so plant species that communities across the world use for medicine. Around 20 per cent of the ingredients of Pukka Herbs’ teas are still wild-sourced. Sometimes this is because they are naturally abundant in the wild, so there’s no need to grow them. Sometimes it’s because they can’t easily be cultivated. And some believe that a plant from the wild, strong enough to resist all kinds of challenges, has more medicinal virtue than one that’s been cosseted by cultivation.
Some of that ancient way of life remains – and traces of it are here in our kitchens, on our herb and spice racks, and in our cups of herbal tea
So if you enjoy elderflower or liquorice, homely nettles or exotic Ayurvedic ingredients such as bibhitaki, you’re enjoying the fruits of modern day hunter-gathering.
Gathering herbs fresh from the wild sounds idyllic, but the reality can be anything but. Many are being over-harvested, through ignorance or greed, or both. As writer and medical herbalist Su Bristow points out: “In traditional societies, it was understood that you always leave enough to ensure a supply in the future; you know the right time of year to harvest, the right parts of the plant, and so on. But the global society is a long way from there. When something hits the headlines, like Hoodia a few years ago [it’s an appetite suppressant, used by Kalahari bushmen], there’s a huge surge in demand and in price. In the gold rush that follows, both traditional use and the plant itself can become extinct.”
Meanwhile, some of the people employed to pick the wild herbs are themselves exploited, forced to work long hours in sometimes hazardous conditions for poor pay.
In an effort to tackle both these challenges, a range of conservation and development groups got together to establish FairWild – a new standard aimed at protecting both the wild plants and the people who pick them. As with the well-known Fairtrade standard, FairWild ensures that pickers receive a decent payment for their labour, and fair working conditions, along with a community premium, which they collectively choose to spend on local benefits. Liquorice root harvesters on the steppes of Kazakhstan, for example, voted to use it for a caravan, so they could enjoy their breaks while sheltering from the heat of the sun.
Over three-quarters of the wild-sourced ingredients which find their way into Pukka’s teas are now FairWild-certified
FairWild also guards against over-harvesting, as well as protecting the wider environment where the pickers work. As Pukka’s sustainability manager, Vicky Murray, puts it: “it makes sure they don’t inadvertently trample all over other species in search of the one we they want to pick.”
Like all such standards, its credibility relies on rigorous monitoring, using independent auditors to carry out checks at every stage of the work. “It starts with preparing an ecological map of the area to be harvested”, explains Anastasiya Timoshyna. She’s programme leader for medicinal plants at TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, which hosts the secretariat for FairWild. “That way we know what’s already there, what other species need to be protected, and how much can be harvested on a genuinely sustainable basis.”
In some cases, for example, when it comes to nettles or elderflowers, there’s little need to worry: the plants grow freely and harvesting significant quantities will do little harm. Other, rarer, species, like some of the Ayurvedic herbs, need tight ceilings on the amount to be taken each season. And there are different rules for harvesting leaves, say – which will regrow – to those for roots, like liquorice – where, by definition, you’re taking the entire plant. (The rule for liquorice is to leave an area ‘fallow’ for four years between harvests, so that new plants can take root.)
The auditors regularly check conditions on the ground, making sure that both the pickers’ welfare, and that of the wider environment, is being respected. “It’s really a very comprehensive standard”, says Timoshyna, “going right across the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainability”.
As FairWild’s reputation grows, more producers buying wild herbs are signing up. They see a clear market advantage in doing so, since ethically-minded buyers like Pukka are expressing a clear preference for plants sourced under the standard. Over three-quarters of the wild-sourced ingredients which find their way into Pukka’s teas are now FairWild-certified, as witnessed by its logo on their packs.
And behind that logo lie some fascinating stories.
Take elder. It is a classic ‘pioneer’ species, establishing itself quickly on waste ground. Older readers in Britain might remember how it sprang from bomb sites after the war. A more recent war – that in Bosnia – has seen its own grim share of such sites, and again, elder has sprung forth. Now Pukka is backing a local project under which people from communities on both sides of the conflict are coming together to harvest the elderflowers, which end up in Pukka teas under the FairWild logo.
Or take bibhitaki. This powerful Ayurvedic remedy, one of the ingredients in Pukka’s Triphala tea, is harvested from the fruit of a tree which grows in the forests of India’s Western Ghats. The finest fruits come from the larger, older trees. And these are home to an extraordinary bird, the great pied hornbill. It mates for life, and when the female is rearing her chicks, she retreats into a hollow in the tree which she then carefully seals with bark and droppings, leaving just a little hole through which her partner feeds her.
Both the bibhitaki and the hornbills which make it a home are under threat, with the trees being cleared for firewood or farming. But thanks to the FairWild scheme, local people can earn an income from harvesting the fruits – enough to ensure they protect the trees, rather than fell them.
It’s another example of the fact that, by choosing a product bearing the FairWild logo, you’re protecting the future not just of the plants which you enjoy, but of the wildlife which depend on them – and the people who live among them, too.
All images: Pukka Herbs