by Robert Tisserand
In most essential oil-related sustainability discussions, the plants most often cited are Sandalwood and Rosewood. Fortunately, the Sandalwood problem has receded over the last couple of years – see here. More of an issue would be Spikenard and Rosewood, with perhaps Agarwood (Oud) or Frankincense in third place. Plant sustainability is an increasing challenge. It’s not a new one, but the popularity of essential oils has massively increased the problem. According to a 2010 review by the IUCN and the WWF, there are 50-80,000 flowering plant species used for medicinal purposes worldwide and about 15,000 of these are threatened with extinction from overharvesting and habitat destruction.
The problem is a complex one, but a core aspect is that wild-growing plants are more at risk than cultivated ones (though monoculture presents its own challenges). Another aspect is that, to avoid legal restrictions and to reduce costs, some plants or essential oils are illegally traded or smuggled. A press release from September 18th 2017 highlights this: “Salt Lake City – A Lehi-based essential oils company pleaded guilty Monday to illegally trafficking therapeutic oils from Peru and Nepal. The plea deal requires Young Living Essential Oils to fork over $760,000 and develop a plan to track compliance, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. The company reported its own missteps to the government after hiring an outside investigator in 2015. The probe found that the company exported Rosewood oil from Peru and Spikenard oil from Nepal without the proper permits for harvesting plants deemed endangered.” More here.
In 2015 Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi, synonym N. grandiflora) was classed as “critically endangered” by IUCN. In 1994, concerns were expressed about over-exploitation of the species and it has been listed as “endangered” by CITES since 1997. This initially only referred to whole and sliced roots and their parts, but in 2007 it was modified, and the revised definition included the essential oil. The CITES regulation is under it’s Appendix II: “Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
Spikenard is at least as endangered as Rosewood, which is a slow-growing rainforest tree and is not easy to cultivate. Although spikenard is a small plant, it is also difficult to cultivate, though there have been some attempts. It typically grows wild on rocky soil at very high elevations: 10-15,000 feet (3,000-4,500 meters). The challenges of growing and harvesting aromatic plants in the Himalayan region are encapsulated here, along with the difficulties of obtaining CITES permits in Nepal.
There probably is some limited cultivation on small plots in the foothills, but the essential oil mostly comes from wildcrafted plants – the following is from the IUCN profile, and summarizes their perspective: “Due to high volume trade and demand, the species is collected from its wild habitat in an indiscriminate way and thus population is declining continuously (Goraya et al., 2013). This has a severe impact on natural regeneration. Thus, the population of this species is declining very fast in the natural habitat. In the CAMP workshop organised at Shimla in 2003 it was collectively agreed by experts that more than 80% of the wild population in the Himalayan region of Indian has declined over the last 10 years. The species is therefore assessed as Critically Endangered. Similar threats are ongoing in Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Nepal, and therefore the status in India is considered representative of that of the species globally.” More detail can be found in the December 2000 background report for the CITES listing.
Nardostachys jatamansi is the only species within its genus, though there has been some confusion with Valerian (Valeriana species), which has been incorrectly referred to as N. jatamansi. Unlike Valerian, Spikenard only grows in the Himalayan region, mostly in Nepal, with some also in surrounding regions including Bhutan, and Sikkim, in N.E. India. The whole plant is harvested, as the roots are the part used, and plant recovery is slow. The roots are dried, and either used as such, or processed for essential oil.
The CITES ruling restricts international trade of Spikenard roots and essential oil without appropriate permits, and in May 2017 the Nepalese government announced legislation to implement the CITES ruling locally. Some feel that this has been done in a hasty manner, without involving stakeholders. It has allegedly resulted in an immediate ban on all trade of Spikenard. I say allegedly, as the original documentation is in Nepalese (सङ्कटापन्न वन्यजन्तुतथा वनस्पतिको अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय व्यापार नियन्त्रण ऐन, २०७२) and I have no way of checking it. In addition to severely impacting the supply of Spikenard oil, it is estimated that 25-30,000 Nepalese households derive up to 20% of their income from Spikenard harvesting. This may be an over-estimate, but it highlights the risks of precipitous legislation, if this has in fact happened.
The sustainability issue is not going away. In recent years we have seen availability problems for aromatics such as Lavender, Vanilla, Roman Chamomile, Blue Tansy, Immortelle, Frankincense and of course Spikenard. In some cases there may be short-term issues of supply-demand that are solvable in one or two seasons. Some problems are primarily due to disease and monoculture, and these may be solvable. In most cases, the increasing demands for thousands of kg of essential oil is straining the capacity of our planet to produce enough to satisfy an increasingly hungry market.
Smuggling and over-harvesting of wild-growing Sandalwood trees in India over many decades, eventually, and inevitably, caused the industry to collapse there. Fortunately, cultivated Santalum album oil is now produced in great quantity in Australia. Frankincense, especially Boswellia carterii, is now being over-harvested in Somalia, and there are no signs that the situation is improving. The same is true for Spikenard in Nepal. When over-harvesting is carried out to meet high demand with insufficient regard for sustainability, there will be a reckoning at some point. Either supplies will dry up, or regulators will intervene. Either way, the income of those who grow and harvest the plants may be impacted the most.
I’m not saying that you should not buy any specific essential oil, and Somalian Frankincense traders have expressed concerns to me privately about the negative impact that a sudden drop in the demand for Frankincense oil would have on livelihoods, though I have to say this scenario seems unlikely. I do think there is a need for greater awareness of the challenges, and for greater transparency from both manufacturers and suppliers about fair trade issues and sustainability.