THE LONG ROAD TO SUSTAINABLE LICORICE

by Josef A. Brinckmann

licorice
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Licorice, the roots, rhizomes, and stolons of Glycyrrhiza glabra, G. uralensis, and more rarely G. inflata,1 is among the most widely used medicinal plants globally, in terms of annual quantities harvested and exported but also in terms of the number of formulations that contain it, especially in the traditional Chinese,2 Japanese Kampo,3 Indian Ayurvedic, and Unani systems of medicine,4 but also in traditional European herbal medicinal formulations.5 Similarly, at Traditional Medicinals (Sebastopol, CA), licorice root has played an important role in many of our herbal medicinal tea formulations since our foundation in 1974.

While we have been working towards sustainable licorice production for decades, for geopolitical reasons we were not able to actualize the implementation of international sustainability standards (with independent auditing and certification) until the early 21st century. That is mainly due to the fact that the majority of licorice root in global trade is harvested from wild populations situated in extremely remote areas within republics of the former Soviet Union (e.g. especially Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, but also Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan); frontier areas of the People’s Republic of China (e.g. Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region); and other major licorice-producing countries where diplomatic relations and trade have been difficult or disrupted over the years, especially Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. There is, however some wild collection of licorice in parts of Europe (e.g. Italy, Spain, and Turkey). And, licorice is being cultivated to some extent, particularly in China (about 20% of China’s annual licorice usage of about 300 million kg is now cultivated), but also in Italy, Egypt, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and Australia. So far, unfortunately, the content of much of the cultivated root is not matching that of wild quality and thus is usually diverted to non-medicinal, food, or confectionary uses.6-8

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations were passed, inclusive of a wildcrop harvesting practice standard.9 At that point we encouraged all of our producers of wild collected plants to implement the new organic standards towards certification. While this was accomplished for most of our wild herbs by about 2005, wild licorice took a bit longer to sort out. At that time, much of our licorice was coming from Uzbekistan, and it was determined that the operation was not ready or willing to go for organic certification.

Harvesting wild licoric
Harvesting of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) in Georgia
Photos: J.A. Brinckmann, 2015

Furthermore, because the organic standards were limited in scope—with no criteria or indicators for determining economic and social sustainability—we looked to add on other emerging voluntary sustainability standards to compensate for the inadequacy of the organic standards. In the early 2000s both the German government-supported development of the International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP)10-12 and the Swiss government-supported FairWild Standards13 project were being drafted through multi-stakeholder processes and were being test implemented for feasibility with different herbs around the world in different types of ecosystems. Traditional Medicinals actively supported both of these early initiatives, as they more comprehensively addressed economic, environmental, and social sustainability in the medicinal plants value chain.

During 2005-2006, the FairWild Standard was being test-implemented with tribal groups in Afghanistan provinces of Badakshan, Baghlan, Bamyan, and Herat as part of a program funded by the Dutch development organization Oxfam-Novib with trade support of the Organic Herb Trading Company (Somerset, UK).14 We evaluated this material and found the quality to be exceptional, but it was, and remains, too dangerous for our personnel and independent inspectors to carry out audits without bodyguards at the Afghani wild licorice collection areas. Unfortunately, this project dropped out of the FairWild production and trading system.

Concurrently in 2005, our primary licorice processor-supplier, Martin Bauer GmbH & Co. KG (Germany and Russia), identified a wild licorice operation in eastern Kazakhstan near the border with the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region that was interested and willing to test the new sustainability standards for feasibility. Traditional Medicinals and Martin Bauer commenced a multi-year collaboration to support the simultaneous implementation of three standards at this site: (1) USDA Organic wildcrop harvesting practice standard; (2) FairWild Standard13; and the (3) ISSC-MAP.10-12 Annual audits began in 2006 by the Swiss inspection and certification body Institute for Market Ecology. The operation achieved organic wild certification in 2007 and FairWild certification in 2008. In 2008, the ISSC-MAP and FairWild initiatives merged, which led to version 2 of the FairWild Standard in 2010, which incorporated the ISSC-MAP.15

Harvesting of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) in Georgia Photos: J.A. Brinckmann, 2015
Harvesting of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) in Georgia
Photos: J.A. Brinckmann, 2015

After proving feasibility and achieving organic and fair certification with the Kazakh operation, we began to encourage another of our good organic wild licorice producers to implement the FairWild Standard. That operation is situated in the remote northern areas (Gilgit–Baltistan) of Pakistan, i.e. the Hunza Valley area near the borders with Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The operation did eventually receive FairWild implementation trainings through a Dutch-government funded project. But similar to the aforementioned project in Afghanistan, it remains unsafe to visit the Pakistani wild collection sites due to Taliban activities in the area and occasional U.S. drone attacks.

In 2007, implementation of the FairWild Standard also began in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan (within Uzbekistan) with German government financial support and trade support from a Swiss trading company, W. Kündig & CIE AG (Zurich, Switzerland). While we were interested in the potential of FairWild licorice from this region, this project unfortunately did not succeed, mainly for bureaucratic reasons.

Still aiming towards a viable second source of organic and fair licorice, in 2010 I began to hold discussions about sustainable wild collection of Georgian licorice root with representatives of the Georgian National Investment Agency (under the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development) and with colleagues who were consultants at that time for a German government-funded project in Georgia known as “Sustainable management of the biodiversity in protected areas and forests, South Caucasus.” These discussions played some role in government agencies contacting local companies to determine feasibility of scaling up commercialization of wild licorice root for export. Although there was existing small scale wild collection for domestic consumption, the first large scale commercial harvests of wild licorice in Georgia (for export market) took place in 2011. One of the companies was a beneficiary of USAID funding for their new licorice operation situated in southeastern Georgia near the borders with Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Their fi rst exports of certified organic wild licorice took place in 2013. It took another two years before the operation would achieve FairWild certification, with the trade support of Martin Bauer Germany and the purchase commitment of Traditional Medicinals.

Harvesting wild licorice 2013
Harvesting of wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza uralensis) in Kazakhstan Photo: J.A. Brinckmann, 2013

In 2016, we also revisited Uzbekistan (for a third time). An operation there had achieved organic wild certification, and one of our other processor-suppliers of licorice made a site visit in order to make a preliminary determination of whether implementation of the FairWild Standard was feasible.

Finally, Traditional Medicinals has been using a lesser amount of wild licorice root from a harvesting site in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of the P.R. China since the late 1990s. They achieved organic wild certification in the mid 2000s; however, the FairWild Standard fi rst became “legal” for audits and certifi cation in the P.R. China in 2017—but that’s another story!16

In our decades-long journey towards sustainable licorice, we’ve explored collaborations with wild collection operations situated in remote parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Inner Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Georgia in partnerships with governmental agencies, nature conservation non-governmental organizations, and the companies that process and supply licorice in the forms and qualities we specify for use in our products. Through implementation of credible international standards for sustainable wild harvesting, coupled with annual audits carried out by independent third party inspection and certification organizations, traceability, transparency, quality assurance, sustainable harvesting methods, resource management, biodiversity conservation, and equitable trade have all become standard operating procedure.

Historical events that enabled the eventual ability to demonstrate ecosystem management with sustainable harvesting of wild populations of licorice included the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with China in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the 1990s, and the subsequent development of credible international standards for sustainable wild collection of medicinal plants in the 2000s.

Josef Brinckmann is a Research Fellow at Traditional Medicinals (Sebastopol, CA) and serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the FairWild Foundation, a Switzerland-based non-profi t standards setting organization for the sustainable wild collection of medicinal and aromatic plants. Josef is also a member of the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, an Advisory Group Member of the Sustainable Herbs Program of the American Botanical Council, and a member of the Botanical Raw Materials Sustainability Committee of the American Herbal Products Association.

REFERENCES

  1. European Pharmacopoeia Commission. European Pharmacopoeia, Tenth Edition (PhEur 10.0). Strasbourg, France: European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines; 2019.
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