Webinar explores the business case for medicinal and aromatic plants

Solidaridad in India launched its Medicinal Plants Programme with a well attended stakeholder meeting and is keen to connect with European sector players. 

Unlocking the potential of medicinal and aromatic plants was the title of the webinar held on October 7th. It was an alternative programme for the MAP Expo 2020, which could not take place this year due to COVID-19. The webinar was jointly prepared with NBI International and ProFound, with whom Solidaridad is developing a partnership to promote sustainable sector development. 

The purpose of the webinar was to exchange thoughts and insights on the potential of the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAP) sector for herb farmers and other sector players in countries worldwide, and on what is needed to unlock this potential in a sustainable way. More than 80 participants from 37 countries, among which many growers, traders and processors of aromatic and medicinal plants (MAPs) from all around the globe signed up for the webinar. 

In the coming decades, plants with medicinal, aromatic and other properties will increasingly be used for all kinds of purposes, replacing existing mineral and synthetic ingredients and end products, but also providing for all kinds of new products.”

Applications for medicinal and aromatic plants include food products and supplements, natural health remedies and supplements, nutraceuticals, beverages, cosmetics and body care products, but also agricultural inputs, animal health products and industrial uses. 

The webinar highlighted the overall potential of medicinal and aromatic plants and some of the challenges faced while growing, collecting, processing and trading MAPs. Through a panel discussion, experts from different backgrounds discussed the potential of MAPs for farmers and the sector as a whole, the related challenges and potential strategies for sustainable sector development. 

Why medicinal and aromatic plants?

Not many people are aware of the fact that globally the vast majority of people rely on medicinal herbs and plants as their main source of illness prevention, stabilization and cure. According to the World Health Organization, this percentage goes up to 80 or even 90% in some Sub Saharan countries, while the demand in the European and US market is growing rapidly. Since its first Traditional Health Care Strategy in 2005, WHO has been promoting scientific research and advising developing countries to professionalize traditional health care and integrate them in their public health care system. And not only traditional medicine depends on these plants. Around 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants. 

With rainforests rapidly disappearing and less than 1% of rainforest species unresearched, pharmaceutical companies are speeding up their research investments. This makes clear that protecting our rainforests is not only a must from a climate change perspective, but also from a health perspective (Source: ThoughtCo., ‘Tropical Rainforests are Nature’s Medicine Cabinet’). 

Trained rural entrepreneurs set up demonstration plots, such as this Mentha plot, to model production technologies

However, this is not the only use made of these plants. Plants known for their healing or protecting properties for humans, often have similar properties for animals and plants. Other properties of plants can be used for industrial purposes, like Castor oil, which apart from its medicinal properties can be used for soaps, lubricants, and coatings. Castor oil is increasingly considered as an important substitute for edible oils and non renewable fossil oil derivatives that are now used for these purposes. Replacing non renewable sources, for all kinds of purposes and materials, by renewable sources is an important strategy in support of circular, green economy development.

For farmers and collectors, MAPs can provide an important strategy for income diversification and farm resilience, as well as an incentive for forest conservation in the case of plants collected in the wild. The main problem is that this sector is highly unorganized, which leads to many problems in terms of product quality and safety, as well as rewarding market connections and opportunities. In addition, the high value adding potential of these plants requires a strategy that enables raw material producers to add value on or close to the harvesting location and where possible makes them co-owners of the facilities that are needed for this purpose, to allow for more equal distribution of benefits throughout the value chain. 

Medicinal plants programme in India

The Medicinal Plants Programme of Solidaridad in India seeks to address all these aspects. The programme was launched in September 2019, with a stakeholder roundtable meeting in Bhopal, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s largest production and collection areas of medicinal plants. India is the second largest producer and exporter of medicinal plants and related products in the world—after China—and the sector has considerable and rapidly growing economic importance for India’s economy. This importance and growth also comes with challenges, as highlighted above.

Madhya Pradesh Minor Forest Produce (Trading & Development) Co-operative Federation Ltd. is working to ensure that precious natural resources can be protected and harvested in a sustainable manner.

Demonstration plots

The Medicinal Plants Programme in Madhya Pradesh is explicitly designed as an income diversification and resilience strategy for farmer families and communities that are already participating in Solidaridad’s soy programme and the recently launched Good Farming, Good Food Programme. It seeks to enhance farm and community resilience not only by creating additional sources of income, but also by ensuring improved outcomes for health and wellbeing in communities that are often deprived of nutritious food and basic health care. 

As women play an important role in family income generation and are mainly responsible for the health and wellbeing of their families, they form the main target group. Selected farmers are trained as rural health entrepreneurs and from there set up their training plot with medicinal plants, which in turn serves to demonstrate production technologies and to encourage other farmers to grow these plants as intercrop or mixed crop. From demonstration plots and the plants cultivated, local health oriented entrepreneurship will be developed.

Mentha and Satavar demonstration plot

Supply chain assurance

In order to encourage Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Field Collection Practices (GFCP) in medicinal plants and enhance quality and safety of these plants, the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB), in collaboration with the Quality Council of India (QCI), has launched a Voluntary Certification Scheme for Medicinal Plant Produce (VCSMPP). The scheme is based on international best practices and on the WHO Guidelines for good agricultural and field collection practices. In addition, Solidaridad is developing digital training, self assessment and traceability tools, analogue to the sustainability scheme and tools developed for other commodities, like Trinitea. Together, these will mark an effective step towards ensuring quality and sustainability in the sector, two key factors to ensure long term sustainability of the sector.

Sector organization

Solidaridad Asia director Shatadru Chattophadhayay highlights the potential of medicinal plants for farmers, societies and economies.

From the consultative roundtable meeting on the different challenges and opportunities in the sector of medicinal plants and herbal medicines, the main issues with regard to sustainability of the sector were identified and listed. The round table also provided an opportunity to leverage expertise and resources of different engaged stakeholders in the value chain. In addition, the round table facilitated the initiation of the process for setting-up a National Stakeholders Platform for Sustainable Medicinal and Aromatic plants. The proposed platform aims to bring together the collective and coherent efforts by stakeholders towards sustainable development of the MAPs sector in India. 

The programme in India will most certainly provide important learning and inspiration for global sector organization. From the webinar, Solidaridad and its partners ProFound and NBI will work towards linking the Indian and the European MAP sector and steer on a sustainable pathway to unlock the potential of this sector, ensuring a solid business case for farmers and collectors. 

The recording of the webinar can be found here