Herbal Medicines: Organic or Not?

Part 2

The world’s appetite for organics is growing at an annual rate of approximately 25%. In 2014 the global market for organic food was estimated at US$80 billion, the largest markets being the USA (US$35.9 billion), Germany (US$10.5 billion) and France (US$6.8 billion). Demand for organic food in China is also increasing, with estimated organic retail sales worth US$4 billion in 2014 (1).

Unfortunately though, we also live in an age of Greenwashing, which is the marketing or promotion of products as being more sustainable and organic than what they in fact are. Words such as ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ have market appeal, and their meanings are frequently massaged and misused simply to promote sales. Many companies and large corporates are falling over themselves to be seen as offering healthier products, without a genuine change in approach or concern applied to the direct and indirect harm caused by agrichemicals and non-sustainable farming methods. Such greenwashing has become common, including in New Zealand which is currently an unregulated organics market. It is important that relevant parameters are checked, audited and certified by a trusted organic certification agency, and consumers are right to ask for proof of authenticity.

In parallel with the above trends, we’ve seen a rise of a vocal minority who take relish in challenging and continuing to try and dispel, the growing consumer awarenesss of organics.  There is no shortage of such sceptics in countries such as New Zealand or the U.S, who dispute the benefits of organic food production over conventional farming.  In countries such as Germany and Denmark on the other hand, the importance of organic agriculture for personal health, childrens’ health, farmworkers and for the future of our planet, has much more widespread acceptance.

Hyssop.jpgScience is also starting to suggest superior nutritional properties for organic crops. A ten year comparison of the influence of organic and conventional crop management practices on tomato flavonoid content, measured higher levels of the antioxidant lavonoids quercetin and kaempferol in organic tomatoes(2).   Studies have also found enhanced organoleptic and taste qualities of organic versus non organic apples(3).

New Zealand organic production and exports have grown in recent years, but from a low base, and at a rate slower than that seen in many other countries. This is for many reasons, but probably partly attributable to the fact that unlike in Europe, no subsidies for organic conversion are provided during the 3 year conversion period. This means that when land dependent on chemical inputs applied over many years is cold-turkeyed off these, resulting in substantial productivity drops particularly in the 1st year, the farmer has to stomach substantial short term financial losses, which can be a significant disincentive.

Once certified, however, substantial benefits can manifest. New Zealand farmers producing organic milk for example, are projected to be paid $9.20 a kg of milksolids for 2016/2017, more than twice that of the $3.90 a kg currently paid to their conventional farming colleagues. While global milk prices have been volatile in recent years, prices for organic dairy ingredients have remained at relatively high levels, because consumers’ appetite for organic milk products is growing faster than supply(4).

The popularity of herbal products for ‘detoxification’ or ‘liver cleansing’, and those treating childrens’ ailments, is increasing. However, as with non-organic fruit and vegetables and dairy products, the large farm production and commodity based trading systems for most medicinal herbs can also involve significant levels of agrichemical inputs. Thus unless documented proof of their organic status is available, or the manufacturer is routinely testing every batch for pesticides and heavy metals, there can be no guarantee that residues of compounds which may impact negatively on human health, are not present in herbal medicines.

It is time for non-organic production methods to be avoided by growers and consumers who care about their health and that of the planet and future generations. This should apply to all facets of agriculture, including medicinal plant production.


  1. Hoare B, Organics Aotearoa New Zealand, 2016 New Zealand Organic Sector Report. oanz.org
  2. Mitchell AE et al, J Agric Food Chem 2007; 55(15):6154-6159.
  3. organic-center.org
  4. Paul Grave, head of Fonterra cooperative affairs, Waikato, in Organic dairy farms reap rich rewards. NZ Herald, 7 May 2016