Part 2: How The Herbal Industry Can Start to Address Climate Change & Sustainability


Part two of our interview with Dr. Holly Johnson, the Chief Science Officer of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).  In this episode, Wilson and Holly discuss the following:

  • 1:20:  Climate Change is affecting the way we grow and harvest.
  • 2:58:  High Temps in the Pacific Northwest decrease the yield of valerian root.
  • 4:12:  Be the bestie to your farmer or supplier before it’s too late.
  • 8:35:  Growing location affects phytochemical profile.
  • 12:53:  Protecting wild populations from decline with CITES.
  • 17:41:  Preserve wildcrafting: wildcrafters are underpaid and leaving the industry.
  • 23:59:  How do we bring more value to wildcrafters?

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Hi, I would like to welcome Holly Johnson, the Chief Science Officer of the American Herbal Products Association, back to Herbal Explorations.

What's your view on climate change and its impact on the herbal supply chain? How do you see climate change and global warming impacting the quality and availability of herbs? On the availability of herbs, people already understand that portion of it, but since you're the scientist, I want you to talk about the quality portion of it. How will it impact the phytochemical activity of the herbs that we use? How would climate change impact that?


Holly Johnson:

Climate change is an ongoing issue.  A commodity in our herbal marketplace out of Florida is Saw Palmetto.  We are concerned about the continuing storms and whether they will affect our ability to harvest Saw Palmetto. 

 Several examples of botanicals, like Saw Palmetto and others were discussed at the APHA’s Botanical Congress.  We often think about rising shore ocean levels and how that can affect palm-type commodities like coconut and saw palmetto.  These effects can be everywhere regarding whether botanicals will have to be cultivated or come from the wild.

We often think about palm-type commodities, like coconut, that grow near shorelines. We always think about rising shore ocean levels, this type of thing. But these effects can be everywhere in terms of whether botanicals are cultivated or come from the wild.

Many factors are going to influence changes in the way that we grow our medicinal herb species. Regarding supply and demand, valerian is one of those herbs that has spiked in popularity in the past three years since the pandemic started. It's a very traditional herb, has a long history of use as a sedative, has anxiolytic effects, and helps with sleep.  It skyrocketed in popularity as those effects were more desirable and needed with the stress that came along with the pandemic conditions.  This herb has been successfully cultivated in the United States Pacific Northwest for decades.

But in the past several years of harvest, hot summer temperatures have been plaguing the Pacific Northwest.  For example, in Hawaii, we have ostensibly three or four kinds of seasons of harvest. However, in places like Oregon and Washington, you can't plant at any time of year. You've got one season where you plant in the spring and harvest in the fall.

In the past five years, they have been experiencing increased temperatures, with data showing more than 25 days in a row of over 95°F temperatures. This was unheard of just ten years ago and decreased the yield per acre of the actual valerian root.

We don't know if these increased temperatures in the Pacific Northwest have affected the quality of those pieces of herbs, but it is certainly affecting business.  For example, if you get only 40% or 60% of the yield per acre that you were getting before, right as the supply is going up, you will then be inundated with more demands from new clients that want to buy this.

It illustrates an issue that is one of the most important. When qualifying suppliers, it's not just a checklist of things; try to build long-term relationships with your suppliers. We must become besties with our farmers, collectors, and suppliers.  Whether you are qualifying an ingredient, a farm, or a supplier, we have to involve things like, "I don't want just to buy whatever quantity of valerian you have right now. Let's talk about the next five years. Let's talk about the next ten years so that we can do some planning."

Different types of contracts are being negotiated to give more security to farmers. Brands pay upfront to have these things, securing long-time contracts as new things are brought into cultivation.

Quality can only improve as you put better and stronger qualification programs in place in terms of qualifying new ingredients, especially ones that have had a change in their source due to climate change.  Now is the time to think about these things, not after a hurricane wipes out all of the saw palmettos. That's where the urgency is being felt by some to consider these aspects and to make sure that we can get a continuous supply of high-quality herbs.



It's extremely important. Relationships and stability are great ways to think about the supply chain.  Developing and investing in those relationships is important for a reliable and steady supply. We must think about things in a multi-year approach and stop moving from a "just-in-time" approach. 

I think that change is going to keep the words “supply chain” in everyone's mind because this is not just about having enough this year or even the next 18 months. How do we ensure we have quality material over the longevity of the brands and companies we want to be? I think that this is absolutely essential.

Suppose you're only yielding 40% per acre of valerian, and that's the expectation going forward, and you need the same amount of material. In that case, the farmer has to use more land to get the exact yield, which will also impact the cost calculations.


Holly Johnson:




If you don't plant with them and they just keep planting in those 10 acres, for example, they don't want to produce 40% of their old yield. They may need to plant at least double or more than double to get to their old yield. It becomes a question of whether you can do this and what it would take.

With the extreme weather events that have been happening, I'm reading studies that some botanicals are going to be in peril. Some won't do as well, but some plants might do better.  I read a study in a scientific journal that said poppies love carbon. They project that as global warming continues, it'll become twice as potent in the future. So as a chief science officer, what's your take on this?

Do you think global warming will change the chemical profile of plants in the future? If so, how does that impact our assumptions revolving around testing, identity, strength, and potency?


Holly Johnson:

Great question, Wilson. We've been considering this for quite a long time in a context even beyond climate change.  In plant species, everything is unique.  As you said, poppies love carbon,, and echinacea loves crappy soils.  

The effects of climate change will depend on species-to-species variation. For example, you can grow a Cabernet grape in the mountains of France, and you could grow that same stock of grape in the Pacific Northwest, which will taste different.  Does that still mean we could test it for identity? Could we still say, "This is a Cabernet grape"? Could we still say it's going to have the same effect? It may have the same amount of alcohol, just a different profile of these other secondary metabolites that affect flavor and taste.

It also goes back to the intended use. It depends on what you're trying to use your herb for and if the slight changes in chemical fingerprints affect its acceptability. Not necessarily the quality, but the acceptability of this material for your intended use.  It is essential to be specific about what our intended use is.  Ask yourself, what do I need from this poppy? Do I need it to have this much of this specific characteristic, or am I using this for taste in my tea, and I need it to have a certain level of these other markers?

Valerian is another example that, when brought into cultivation in different areas, it is now not passing some of the traditional identity tests that we use to support identity specifications, which could be an issue. That doesn't mean it's not valerian, and it doesn't necessarily mean it's not good quality valerian for your intended use.  However, you will have to find a way to test the identity or support your identity specification that might be different than it used in the past.

The same type of issue has come up with tulsi. Tulsi is traditionally grown in India. Many farmers here in the U.S. have started growing it, and it has a slightly different phytochemical profile.  Again, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's not good tulsi for the intended use, but we may have to adjust our methods and our specs to be able to use those types of materials. No one trend will predict what may happen.  Some plant species could be just completely stable. They moved it to some crazy different soil or a different place and then improved on one or more of the molecules that we grow them for.

I keep talking about sustainability as a specification. And so this goes in there, too when you think about what marker compounds or things are critical to this material for your intended use. And that'll be an area on which those in the industry will have to key in.

Wilson, you told me your company has a new project with hibiscus in Mexico and growing it there. Does this relate at all to that crop? Have you seen shifts in phytochemical profiles?



The hibiscus we're growing in Mexico is very similar to that in Africa from a phytochemical profile standpoint. The acidity is there. But again, back to your question, it's for its intended use. The hibiscus we're selling primarily goes to the tea and beverage market, where they want the anthocyanins for color, acidity, and tartness.  

Do we need to ship hibiscus from Africa to get that intended purpose? Now, we're growing it in Mexico and shipping it from Mexico to North America. That supply chain is a lot shorter, a lot tighter, and the carbon footprint is much smaller. We will do a study and quantify what that looks like, but in the end, it is about its intended purpose.


I would be more hesitant to do something like this if it wasn't for food or if it wasn't used in a highly standardized extract. Nuherbs is rooted in that traditional herbalism, and so we remain very conscious about intended use.

Ginseng is one of the most studied herbs; we know a lot about it, but we don't know everything. We have barely scratched the surface of understanding if the ginsenosides make it such a great adaptogen or if it is some other metabolite. Is it because of the combination of the metabolites and other chemicals that come together?

So it's very hard when you want to use it for wellness to say, "Oh great, let's just go plant it somewhere else."  That's not something Nuherbs normally does. Because of the intended use, the intended marketplace, and how it's used, we found it appropriate to shift from sourcing it in Africa to growing it in Mexico. 

Another point you made that I want people to understand is that growth is directly impacting the sustainability of something.  If I want it just for color, I want to find that cultivar or hybrid or find something that will yield the most color from that plant.  By doing that, I can now reduce the tonnage, area, and amount that needs to be grown to yield the same amount of color, phytochemicals, or active constituents.  What we do is impactful, especially with standardized extracts, and trying to hit a marker compound to a certain degree.  Therefore, we will find the best material possible.

One of our mutual friends, Josef Brinckmann, said that when he started in the industry, you could grind up powder; herbs. You didn't need to make an extract, and you could hit the marker ratios. If that's the case and I will grow that same herb, I don't need to undergo an extraction process, which saves a lot of energy and resources to hit that marker compound. If I just grow something that hits 2%, I don't need to extract it.

So these are the examples of why quality and knowing where you're getting it from, your intended purpose, and having that communication to say, "This is what I want to do with it. How can we get there in a way that is the most environmentally sound?"


Holly Johnson:

Wilson, you just hit on a few things I found worth mentioning again. That relocating from Africa to Mexico is about sustainability. It is not just about the cost or economics or the ports being clogged up, but it makes it more sustainable to be closer and shorten that supply chain.

The international regulations law that has been affecting people lately is CITES.  So, it's all related to climate change and biodiversity conservation, but CITES is looking out for our plants harvested from the wild that might be declining in their wild populations and needs protection.

The CITES law does not apply to cultivated materials of that same species.  So you said it took "x" long for you to figure out, "Okay, we want to hit this "x%” mark with our anthocyanins and try to optimize those crops."  It's great and innovative that you are taking these steps before a critical issue gets put on the CITES list and your whole supply gets stopped.  

Recently Boswellia serrata was being considered for CITES annotation.  A new one that's up for consideration with CITES is Rhodiola rosea. Again, it's one of those plants that grow in these specific, high-altitude conditions. It's not easy for me to say, "Oh, just give me some rootstock. I'll start growing that over here in Hawaii." It will take some tinkering in many species' cases to get the quality of the herbal material you want into cultivation.



It is.


Holly Johnson:

These are lengthy processes. And companies like you are starting early and getting in there with certain commodities before you're in complete crisis.  We all need to pay attention to this in the industry.



I have a partner in China, and they focus on high-end wellness.  One of the core products they wanted to do was Dendrobium, which is part of the orchid family, a CITES herb.


Holly Johnson:




It was an investment of millions of U.S. dollars to figure out how to do it.  They figured out how to grow it from germplasm, take it from the lab to a covered greenhouse, and then from the greenhouse out to the field. Everything's possible, but many things are possible with the right investment.

It's just whether there is a desire to make that change and if there is a need for it. People are willing to invest in things they're passionate about and believe in, whether from a financial or a sustainability standpoint.  In order to do this, it's like someone has to raise their hand and say, "I'm the one to do it," or, "I'm willing to be part of the solution.”  It truly takes that kind of effort.


Holly Johnson:




The science is out there, the resources are out there. It will not be possible for everything, but that is another avenue people will explore. How do we grow this better or use fewer resources to grow it? How do we move it from wildcrafting to cultivation?

One thing we must remember about wildcrafting is that as our demographics age and as people move from rural to urban areas, there are fewer and fewer people out there wildcrafting.  Even though it may be abundant in the wild, it doesn't mean people will go and do it. You still might have to move something from wildcrafted to cultivated because no one will go out there and try to make a living doing this.


Holly Johnson:

Wilson, this is such a salient point.  Traditionally, the farmer or the wildcrafter gets the smallest piece of the pie as they go through the value chain from the actual botanical organism to a finished product on the shelf. But in these cases, some of these wild harvesters in regions all over are traditionally underpaid for their work.

It comes to a point if they can find other work to do for more money or the same money, how are you going to retain them in the industry? Increasingly, we see some small communities, especially Indigenous communities, where harvesting some wild commodities is part of their living. It's part of the way that their whole village or community survives.

We don't want to jump to say the solution in every case is to bring things into cultivation. Sometimes, it helps those communities to continue with their wild harvest. Certainly, by paying them more but also by providing infrastructure to their village and making their lives easier so that they can continue to harvest this commodity as part of their livelihood.

Solutions are not easy, and it's different with each species, even in those that are wild-harvested. This is species by species, almost commodity by commodity-related depending on where these things are happening globally. How do we help that end of the value chain to stay, the ones with their hands in the dirt, to make it worth their while and have that be a part of their livelihood?



That's why the work that FairWild does is so important. To your point, how do we support these communities? The interesting thing about wildcrafters is that wildcrafting isn't their main source of income. It's wildcrafting supporting, plus multiple things that make up that pot of income that supports their lifestyle and the ability to live in the areas they traditionally live in.  The farmer may wildcraft during certain times when they can't farm, and so it supplements their income that way.

I am still looking for a situation where that's 100% the sole source of their income where they're collecting something. If you're a licorice farmer, a wildcrafter, and you got to go process it because you harvested thousands of tons of licorice. But outside of something like that, it usually needs to be at scale.  It's hard just to do wildcrafting and that to be your sole source of income.


Holly Johnson:




Last question of the day; It is such a great time talking to you. It goes by so quickly. In season 2 of Herbal Explorations, we focus on sustainability. Are there any things or topics you would like to see us cover more of as we're prepping for Season 2 and getting guests on?


Holly Johnson:

One of the things that I mentioned is sustainability as a specification and featuring how companies are incorporating this.  At APHA, we have our GACP, our Good Agricultural and Collection Practices document that was put out in 2017. You and many other experts were a part of creating that. What we've been working on is expanding it to include sustainability parameters.

The question I get a lot, and maybe this is a question for your Season 2 guests, is, how do you know your ingredients are sustainable? If you're going out to shop for an ingredient, "Oh, I need to buy this, and I want it to be sustainable," how do you know?

There are some voluntary certification standards, like the FairWild. 100%; if you want, you can buy a FairWild ingredient and get involved in that program.  Not all companies want to buy certified ingredients or have the money to do so. But how do you know those types of things? And that's what we're trying to do a little bit more in our GACP revision so that companies can pick and choose what's important to them.

If they say, for example, "Regenerative agriculture is our biggest focus; we want to make sure all our farms are doing regenerative techniques." What can you do when qualifying that supplier in terms of a checklist or questions to ask them in the qualification to ensure their level of sustainability?  A cool question to ask some of your next subject-matter experts or companies is, "How do you know?"  Of course, we've got things like certified organic. Still, you may want to go further than that with sustainability as not something extra but a baseline specification for a particular ingredient. 

We had one person during the Botanical Congress say that they have been able to reduce so much of their waste in their manufacturing facilities. Their most considerable trash and extra waste source is their employee lunchroom because people bring plastics and other things. That's an interesting question to think about in terms of how you are improving your sustainability and how you know.




That's a great point. And we have one episode in Season 2 dedicated to regenerative agriculture. The other exciting thing would be discussing standards and seeing GACP, regenerative agriculture, and what best practices could be pulled across different criteria. There are various certifications as we're looking at regenerative agriculture certification for our project in Mexico. 

With Fairlife or Fairtrade, they're all different seals, not the same standard, and all the standards offer something slightly different. Being an ingredients supplier, we have to figure out what standard our customers are using and what matters to them and get certified to that standard because it doesn't appear on the front of my package. It appears on the front of their packages. It's been quite a fantastic journey in the discovery there as well.

I love your suggestion, and you will hear me ask your question to the experts. Thank you so much for joining me, Holly.


Holly Johnson:  Oh, it's my pleasure, Wilson.