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Do You Understand Organic Part II Part II

In the first part of this article (which can be read here) I have put under scrutiny the structure of an imaginary cream and have shown how much, or how little, it can carry organic content realistically (‘organic’ as organically grown). Based on that analysis, the conclusion was drawn that the organic percentage leans towards very little.

Now, let’s look at the bigger picture. Organic farming, sustainable agriculture, indigenous peoples and fair trade... these are common phrases in the world today. Behind them is an enormously complex puzzle of interconnected factors; it involves thousands of scientists, activists, politicians, organizations and networks, which make that picture not big but gigantic. The intricacies and complexity of that system are beyond the scope of this article, however they are extremely relevant to this story and I will attempt to present some facts, which will give at least a rough sketch of the situation.

Medicinal and aromatic plants have traditionally been used for their medicinal properties, and many of them for their beautifying properties as well. To this day that has not changed. However, the scope of that use has grown from local healers and tribal shamans collecting and processing plants for use in their villages, to two giants, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries, doing the same thing globally. These plants, which supply material for some of the most potent medicines, as well as components for perfumes and skin care products, grow in the wild. Most of the plants used in both of these industries today still come from the wild. WWF estimates that to be around 90%, some more conservative estimates say 60-80%.

This fact is astounding. While it will put at ease most consumers’ concerns about the quality or origins of plants in the products that they are purchasing, it requires some sinking in for its true implications.

Let’s finish the analysis of the skin care product and its organic content first. If we explained earlier that the claim ‘99% organic’ means in truth only around 10%, this new information would place the actual percentage at around 9%, as wild-crafted, with or without the claim. Even if you double that percentage in the most generous scenario, it is never going to get anywhere near 99%, which should put to rest claims that rely more on myths than reality. But what that really means is that if your preference for buying organic stems from concerns over pesticide content in skin care products, you can relax. Whether buying an organic claim or no claim, when it comes to pesticide residue, you are getting a similar product.

This could easily conclude our presentation – we have made a point or two, turned some notions upside-down and shaken a few myths. However, if you are interested in organic farming and ecological impact of this global demand, are at least intrigued, or generally want to be informed, you may want to read the rest.

The reality is not pretty. Such huge demand for medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP’s) is devastating natural habitats, destroying the eco-balance, and driving many species of plants towards extinction. This is not happening only in Asia and Africa and so-called ‘third world countries’ but also in Europe and elsewhere. On the other hand, demanding sustainable production is much easier said than done.

Many of these plants are difficult or even impossible to cultivate commercially and on a larger scale. Some of them, like Sandalwood or Rosewood, take 30 years before they mature for exploitation. Others are weeds, or grow within very delicately balanced habitats, which can also influence the quality of cultivated plants - sometimes the actives yielded from cultivated plants don’t compare to that of the wild plants. Furthermore, complications arise from the market itself - the demand may be high for a certain plant for a year or two, large areas are dedicated to its cultivation, and suddenly either the demand or the price plummet the year after. Agricultural business is notoriously vulnerable to these fluctuations, simply because the investment of resources and labour in cultivating any crops are staggering projects, which can easily collapse like a house of cards at the whim of the volatile markets. Particularly in poor countries.

The population in certain areas of the world where many of these plant species grow is surging explosively and the pressure to raise crops for food is paramount over commercial cultivation of MAP’s, or their preservation. That same expansion of farming practices destroys forests, which in turn causes erosion of fertile soil and massive ecological devastation. The demand and monetary rewards versus pressure from protection agencies result in out-of-control illegal poaching of endangered plants. The story of medicinal and aromatic plants is connected to animal species that live in these habitats and are endangered by over-harvesting of plants, deforestation and drastic reduction, or destruction of their food sources.

Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies create the demand; the middlemen, who trade in these plants, and the local folks who collect them, are all motivated by earning a profit, or a living, depends on how you look at it. Will they turn away from an easier option and dedicate the time and resources to cultivating sustainable crops? A few will.

There is an extensive amount of work and resources being put in protecting and preserving natural richness of our planet, on all levels, from enthusiasts, to scientists, Governments, even some corporations. The human population grows rapidly; the demand not only for necessities such as food, water, shelter and medicines but other less vital or even frivolous commodities grows on par. While cultivation of any crops is an old-fashioned long-term investment in the future, the majority of the world today is doing everything but looking up for that future. That is our reality.

The pharmaceutical industry is usually blamed as the main culprit for this particular crisis. Blame is one of those commodities that are always easy to assign. Without getting into detail of who’s to blame and who is innocent, it is important to say that the cosmetic industry is not far behind. The demand for exciting, new and untapped ingredients is so high that the more exotic they sound in the marketing campaign, the higher the allure to the consumers and thus the higher the sales. And that’s not all. With the rise in popularity of aromatherapy, for instance, the proliferation of courses, books and advice on how to use essential oils has increased the demand for them on the consumer level as well. Just think of all the health food stores you know, or alternative centres, with all the bottles of essential oils stacked on their shelves. Type into Google ‘essential oils’ and there will be millions of results, from suppliers next door to companies who sell them in drums. These days many of these stories come with the feel-good tale of local sustainability fair trade and so on. Are they true? They may be, who knows, and who can realistically prove or disprove them? However, if they were all true, one would expect the situation to be much better than it really is.

And so here we are at the beginning of the year 2007. Balancing the demands of human civilizations on natural resources on one end, with the respect for renewing cycles in Nature at the other, is simply very hard. It remains one of the biggest challenges of our age. We are all involved in it, whether as consumers, activists, or decision-makers where it matters. Making a difference – well, that would sound like a good resolution at the beginning of a New Year, and it is never too late to act on it however limited our field of influence may be. But before you do any of that, I’d like you to remember that myths are no longer the amusing tales of Ancient Greeks. The modern myth is not funny at all - it is most often a tool aimed at making a profit out of somebody’s naivete and I’d say, weed them out anywhere you see them, and let the real, good weeds grow. They can actually be good for you.

To your beauty and health,

Ivana K.

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