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[Editor's note: This article has been going viral on EcoWatch for days and has been very popular over the last many months. The article is from the 2009 August issue of EcoWatch Journal and the online format of the article is from an older version of our site. I thought with it's renewed popularity, it was best to provide it in our updated online format. Enjoy.]

American Ginseng, Panax Quinquefolius, is a long-lived understory herb found in the mesophytic forests of Appalachia. Ginseng was once native to China but over-harvesting of its species, Panax Ginseng, extirpated the populations. The Chinese have used the roots of the plants in medicinal preparations for thousands of years. Soon after the species was discovered in North America in the 1700s, the Chinese relied heavily on exports of American Ginseng. In the late 1700s, residents established a significant trade chain with the Orient and exported tremendous amounts of ginseng roots. More than 750,000 pounds of wild ginseng roots were exported in 1822 and ginseng sold for 42 cents a pound. It still remains an important component of the informal economy in Appalachia and prices of ginseng today range from $200 to a high of $1,500 a dried pound for the wild roots.

American Ginseng is still in need of protection in order to prevent over-harvesting and continue the economic value it has for the Appalachian region.

In the early 1900s, the ginseng community recognized the need to protect wild populations and enlisted two practices: laws and cultivation. Ginseng can be cultivated under shade cloth or wooded canopies. Northeastern Ohio had several ginseng farms in the early 1900s. The plant was so popular that a national and several state ginseng organizations were created to assist growers. Ohio passed House Bill 9 in 1915 that levied a penalty for the destruction or theft of ginseng. Today, wild ginseng is listed under Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species and ginseng trade is monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Legislation and cultivation have not been totally effective in protecting wild populations. Poaching has become very problematic for both ginseng growers and public land managers trying to secure wild ginseng. Harvesters are urged to abide by sustainable harvesting practices such as taking only mature plants (5 years or older), replanting the ripe berries in the forest, and abiding by harvest seasons. In an effort to protect cultivated ginseng, growers in Ohio have recently begun to seek state certification for Ohio growers. Currently two states have certification—Wisconsin and West Virginia. Certification means that cultivated plants could be distinguished from wild plants and would become exempt from regulations. It may also provide legal means for growers to access crop insurance for roots that are destroyed or stolen.

Ultimately, the long-term survival of this economically important and culturally significant Appalachian species and the future of ginseng trade is dependent on teaching harvesters sustainable practices and encouraging continued cultivation of the roots. Certification of growers is an important step.

For more information about sustainable harvesting techniques or certification efforts, contact Roots of Appalachia Growers Association.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

Greenpeace

By Eric Darier

Traditional Chinese herbs have a strong reputation for their medicinal benefits, but a Greenpeace East Asia investigation has revealed that these herbs are coated in a toxic cocktail of pesticide residues, posing long-term health risks instead.

A farmer from the Miao minority sprays pesticide on his pseudo-ginseng field. Dehou Town, Wenshan County, Yunnan Province. Wenshan is the origin and the main production area of pseudo-ginseng and accounts for almost 98 percent of China's total yield. Photo credit: Simon Lim / Greenpeace

In China, these herbal products are extensively used in daily cooking and are part of the country's culinary heritage. Many people add ginseng, red dates or chrysanthemums, for example, to their soups or tea to cure various health problems.

These herbs are also consumed outside China by people looking for alternative medicines in a global market estimated to be worth US$60 billion annually and growing swiftly.

In its report, Greenpeace East Asia explains how it tested 65 samples of Chinese herbal products and found them to be coated in pesticide residues—some of them banned in China.

Many herbal products are cultivated using chemical-intensive agriculture methods and are no longer picked in the wild—another example of the dominant chemical-based industrial agriculture system and its failure to deliver toxic-free foods.

A farmer from the Miao minority pours a cocktail of pesticides into a sprayer to prepare for spraying his pseudo-ginseng farm. Dehou Town, Wenshan County, Yunnan Province. Wenshan is the origin and the main production area of pseudo-ginseng and accounts for almost 98 percent of China's total yield. Photo credit: Simon Lim / Greenpeace

Some of the pesticides detected in the Greenpeace East Asia investigation are considered "highly hazardous" by the World Health Organization (WHO). Some herbal products had residue levels that would breach European food safety standards.

The WHO and European authorities have already ranked or banned some pesticides because of indications that exposure to some of them via food poses health risks due to bioaccumulation in the body. Chronic pesticide poisoning may lead to learning difficulties, hormone disruption and reproductive abnormalities.

Greenpeace champions ecological farming as a more environmentally and human friendly solution to industrial agriculture, and opposes the widespread industrial agriculture model that damages the environment with toxic chemicals and poses threats to human health.

Ecological farming does not rely on chemical pesticides but on natural pest management techniques, rotation and diverse cropping to ensure healthy, nutritious and sufficient food for people while protecting our environment, water and wildlife from toxic poisoning.

A farmer shows off his crop of 'Sanqi' at an open market in Wenshan, Yunnan Province. Panax pseudo-ginseng, or 'Sanqi', is well reputed since the ancient times for its effect of quickening blood flow, dissolving stasis, and eliminating swelling and pains. Wenshan is the origin and main production area ofpanax pseudo-ginseng. Photo credit: Simon Lim / Greenpeace

Greenpeace East Asia is urging the Chinese government to impose stricter supervision and control of illegal pesticides, provide clear pesticides reduction timelines and commit to a road map to fully phase out chemical pesticides in agriculture. Additionally, we call on the Chinese authorities to divert financial funding towards more ecological farming practices.

We must walk this ecological path now to preserve the future of traditional herbal medicine and food production in China and globally. The challenge to switch to ecological farming and away from chemicals-based agriculture is one that all governments need to embrace.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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