Nutrition: The Most Pressing Supply Chain Issue

    Farming herbal crops

    The real threats to the supply chain and the sustainability of the nutrition chain can be summarized in short-term and long-term threats. The short-term threats are the global pandemic, shipping shortages, and war. The long-term issues are more consequential for sustainability and are due to climate change.

    Sidestepping the political debate of the existence of climate change, data reveals that climate-related disruption of herbal supply chains is real. We have seen effects on both extremes: Some plants are more available than demanded; others are less available and in high demand. At present, many of the traditional medicinal plants that were available in the late 90s are now difficult to find. This presents a serious challenge to us all to bring forth new products from lesser-known traditional medicines.

    The other burning issue is the right to food. When demand for an herbal product increases multi-fold, farmers typically replace traditional food sources with non-local food, to meet the growing demand of herbal products. As advocates of the health and wellness industry, how can we justify that stakeholders—farmers and gatherers—revert to malnutrition and hunger in order to serve our demands?

    Current & Future Supply Chain Issues

    Current events, and future changes to the environment, have astounding effects on the availability of herbal medicines. Global pandemics (COVID, SARS, Zika), natural disasters, and even wars have caused shipping shortages and disruption for the current state of the supply chain.

    It has become more evident that the culprit for long-term effects on the supply chain is climate change. The plant growth cycles for cultivated, as well as wildcrafted, herbs is irregular. With weather conditions also being unpredictable due to climate change, it can prove difficult for farmers to gather enough material to meet growing demands. Therefore the problem is two-fold: plant supply and quality.

    Agriculture Sector: The Problem or Solution?

    According to the UN, 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector, making it the key contributor to climate change. Though this sector is extremely vulnerable to climate change—with droughts, floods, and longer fire seasons providing challenges to farmers—the problem can be a part of the solution.

    We must act now by reducing our emissions from the agriculture sector, investing in renewable energy (solar and wind power), reducing deforestation, and improving soil health. If we take these actions, we can negate the effects of climate change, helping to build a more resilient food system for our planet and future generations.

    Climate Change: Pros and Cons

    There are both positive and negative effects of climate change on the agriculture industry: Some plants are more available than they should be; alternatively others have become less accessible and higher in demand.

    Current negative effects of climate change can be seen with plant growth cycles. The irregular growth cycles for cultivated and wildcrafted herbs make it difficult to predict how much bioactive material can be extracted. This variability makes it challenging to plan for and meet the demand for herbal medicines, especially with adverse weather conditions created by climate change.

    It has now become cheaper to ship processed herbal products long distances than it is to grow them locally, leading to a large carbon footprint, and taking the resources away from the regional areas that still rely on traditional herbal medicines rather than western practices. We are also met with the dilemma of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating shipping shortages, and highlighting the importance of local and regional supply chains in keeping communities fed during times of crisis

    Demand vs. Health

    Recently, there has been growing demand for medicinal plants, due to their important role in human health. With this increasing pressure on the traditional sources, the “only solution” would be to increase production using modern tools and techniques to gather ingredients. Although, increase in production can cause a strain on the environment and resources.

    Agroecology, on the other hand, accounts for both production and consumption, providing a more interconnected approach, which helps to reduce costs, ensure continuous supplies, and helps build resilience to the effects of climate change.

    Agroecology: Benefits & Challenges

    Agroecology is known as the branch of agriculture that looks at the ecological impact of our farming and food production methods. From the interactions between the soil, water, plants, and animals—the whole system is analyzed.

    The overall goal of agroecology is to benefit the environment by combining traditional knowledge and modern science.

    The benefits are numerous:

    • reduced reliance on chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides
    • improved overall soil health
    • greater biodiversity.

    The challenges lie with the expenses of switching to agroecology, producing enough food to meet demand, and the overall resistance to change.

    Regardless of the benefits and challenges, agroecology is gaining popularity for its sustainability, and has great potential to provide more sustainable and resilient sources of medicinal plants. If properly supported and invested by consumers, farmers and government officials, it can reshape the way we grow our food and manage our natural resources.

    Equal Nutrition Access

    Due to COVID-19, it has become even more important to be conscientious about the source of our ingredients and how our actions can affect everyone throughout the supply chain.

    Ultimately it depends on our values. Do we, as a society, want to live in a world with equal access to nutritious food? If so, we must speak out and work together to ensure the sustainability of our nutrition supply chain, so that everyone has equal access to a healthy life.

    Related: Using AI to Gather Traditional Nutrition Knowledge

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    Anand Swaroop, Ph.D., is a biochemist, president of the evidence-based nutritional ingredient supplier Cepham and co-founder of Nutrify Today. He earned a Master of Science degree in biochemistry and a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Allahabad, one of India’s most esteemed universities. After a decade in the pharmaceutical industry, he left a lucrative career to devote his expertise to bringing traditional Ayurvedic ingredients from India to the United States. For the next 20 years he developed innovative ingredients for the natural product industry through Cepham. Swaroop’s diverse experience in research, quality assurance, product development, manufacturing and marketing has given him a unique and multidisciplinary perspective on the industry. Today, he shares his insights and knowledge with entrepreneurs and scientists through Nutrify Today with the vision that healthy people can produce healthy societies. Cepham was founded in 1978 as part of India’s science and technology boom. Its early focus was on sharing the healing powers of Ayurvedic ingredients for health and wellness worldwide. Identifying new and active ingredients in Ayurvedic plants continues to be the focus of the company’s pioneering work with headquarters in Somerset, New Jersey, and manufacturing bases in India, China and Africa. As an innovator in using blockchain technology, by being one of the first in the natural products industry to partner with TagOne®, Cepham received the 2020 NBJ Award for Supply Chain Transparency. Cepham is a vertically integrated ingredient company, handling everything from research to clinical studies, to manufacturing to distribution for herbal extracts, branded ingredients and phytochemicals with the goal to shorten the supply chain and make dietary supplements affordable. In 2020, Swaroop co-founded Nutrify Today, a one-stop business development platform for the natural products industry that helps facilitate and launch innovative, evidence-based nutraceutical business ideas worldwide. In addition to being an entrepreneur and leader in the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries, Swaroop was selected as a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition in 2016. He is a highly sought-after speaker at national and international scientific and business conferences and has written many textbooks on biochemistry, supply chain management, and functional foods and ingredients and is the author of multiple peer-reviewed publications. Swaroop currently serves as a member of the task force constituted by the Government of India to recommend the development of Ayurvedic medicine for India’s nutraceutical sector and for other countries worldwide.