The herbals industry has come under attack from conservation groups who claim that the boom in herbal supplements in many western nations is threatening several species and the world's biodiversity.
Last year UK charity Plantlife International said in a report that around 90 per cent of the 1300 medicinal plants used commercially in Europe are collected from the wild and that between 4000 and 10,000 of the 50,000 medicinal plants in use around the world could be endangered.
However Dr Hans-Jürgen Hannig, head of cultivation at one of Europe's biggest herbal extract suppliers Martin Bauer, claims that most of the bigger herbals suppliers are cultivating raw materials if they are required in significant quantities.
"Most of our customers are very keen to get cultivated raw materials," he told NutraIngredients.com. "It is not only a question of biodiversity but also standardization. It is much easier to standardize herbals when they are cultivated, and also guarantee the purity and quality for large quantities."
Martin Bauer, which specializes in supplying the herbal teas industry, sources all of its camomile, peppermint, fennel fruit and thyme from contract cultivation and has also launched successful growing projects for ginseng in China, chilli fruit in Tanzania and verbena in Paraguay.
However the German company does source some of its lower demand products from wild-crafted supplies.
"If you only need some hundred kilos of a raw material per year, it is not worth implementing a cultivation programme," said Dr Hannig.
The firm has more than 100 medicinal plants in cultivation but an additional 80-100 plants are sourced through wild-crafting. These include rosehips and wild apples, both used in fruit teas.
However Dr Hannig believes that reports from conservation groups do not present an accurate picture of the amount of raw material collected from the wild by the herbals industry.
"These reports often make no difference between quantity and the number of varieties of plants used," claims Dr Hannig.
"In general for our company we need demand in the order of tons per year before we would look at cultivation but it can make sense for smaller products if you are able to produce a special quality from cultivation, or if you have problems with microbial contamination in wild-crafted varieties," explained Dr Hannig.
One such product is Devil's claw, a plant native to the African continent, shown to offer benefits for arthritis sufferers. A new cultivation programme for the plant was launched last year.
"We changed our policy on devil's claw because we used the roots and this is problematic for the habitat when demand increases," said Dr Hannig.
However he acknowledged that cultivation can prove expensive, both for the company involved in setting up the programme, and customers of the raw material.
The firm's Devil's claw is around 10-20 per cent more expensive than supplies sourced from the wild. Martin Bauer provides almost all of the raw materials used by its sister firm Finzelberg, which offers herbal extracts for the pharmaceutical and OTC supplement industry.
"The price of cultivated plants are based on real costs whereas wild-crafted products depend on market forces like supply and demand," noted Dr Hannig.
However this means that cultivation can also offer better price security.
Dr Hannig noted that semi-cultivation, whereby native populations are given help from companies to grow crops that are currently collected from the wild, is also increasingly used.
"There is an interest in responsible practices," he added. "Most companies know it is in our own interest to protect the long-term sustainability of these products."
The issue of biodiversity came under focus again last week as a major conference in Paris called for a better, co-ordinated effort to tackle the threat to many animal and plant species.
The herbal product industry will come under pressure to comply with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed in 1992, aiming to set standards on sustainability.