Medicinal herbs—life-sustaining plants that provide a first line of medical care in developing countries, besides inspiring many modern pharmaceuticals—are in peril. These herbal treasures face possible extinction from global climate change, loss of habitat, and overharvesting. As the CEO of New Chapter, one of the world's leading formulators of dietary supplements and herbal formulations from certified-organic ingredients, I'm a witness to this alarming loss of biological diversity.
A study by Botanic Gardens Conservation International found that many of the 70,000 currently known medicinal plant species are at risk. Some experts advocate seed banks as the best way to protect imperiled life on our planet. Although seed banks certainly have value and should be supported, they have limitations:
- Seeds in a bank may be frozen, but the environment is not. Dramatic climate change will severely stress a plant's adaptive capabilities, and a frozen seed bank won't tell us if plants can handle that challenge.
- Seed banks can protect only a limited number of species; many tropical seeds, for example, cannot be preserved by freezing. And we don't know how long frozen seeds can remain viable. To have a chance of protecting biodiversity, we will need living sanctuaries of useful plants in thousands of ecosystems. That might give us the breadth and flexibility necessary to begin the great task of protecting life on the planet.
- Finally, while the seeds lie frozen, healing traditions will still be disappearing.
Organic gardens and gardeners can complement seed bank efforts, and with this in mind, I established the Sacred Seeds project, administered by the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden. In Costa Rica at Finca Luna Nueva ("new moon farm"), New Chapter's biodynamic farm, we have created the Semillas Sagradas ("sacred seeds") Sanctuary, dedicated to protecting medicinal plants of the neotropics. I'm proud that Semillas Sagradas is one of the New World's most comprehensive collections of medicinal herbs. Come visit us! Finca Luna Nueva offers an eco-lodge and conference center in a rainforest paradise.
Wherever you live, you are part of a unique ecosystem. Seasonal rhythms, the region's elevation, rainfall, soil conditions, fauna, and the history of traditional medicine all contribute to an expression of biodiversity that deserves to be protected. I encourage you to plant a Sacred Seeds garden that includes food crops and medicinal herbs that were significant to the indigenous populations of your region, as well as the plants that sustained your ancestors. Once you've established your garden, please consider yourself a Seedling—a founding participant in this movement to save earth's biodiversity and the traditional medical knowledge that sustains us.