Nutrition: The Supply Chain’s Most Pressing Issue

Cultivation of medicinal plants

The real threats to supply chain and nutrition chain sustainability can be summarized into short-term and long-term threats. Short term threats are global pandemic, shipping shortage and war. Longer term issues are more important for sustainability and are due to climate change.

Bypassing the political debate over the existence of climate change, the data reveal that climate-related disruption to plant 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. Nowadays, many of the traditional herbs that were available in the late 90s are now hard to find. This poses a serious challenge to all of us to bring new products from lesser-known traditional medicines.

The other burning issue is the right to food. When the demand for a plant-based product increases several times, farmers usually replace traditional food sources with non-local foods to meet the growing demand for plant-based products. As advocates of the health and wellness industry, how can we justify our stakeholders – farmers and foragers – returning to malnutrition and starvation to meet our demands?

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

It has become more apparent that the culprit for the long-term effects on the supply chain is climate change. Plant growth cycles for cultivated as well as wild grasses are irregular. With weather conditions also being unpredictable due to climate change, it may prove difficult for farmers to gather enough material to meet growing demands. The problem is therefore twofold: plant supply and quality.

According to the UN, 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector, making it the main contributor to climate change. Although this sector is extremely vulnerable to climate change – with droughts, floods and longer fire seasons posing challenges to farmers – the problem can be part of the solution.

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

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

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

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

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

Agroecologyon the other hand, it takes into account both production and consumption, offering a more interconnected approach that helps reduce costs, ensure continuous supply and strengthen resilience to the effects of climate change.

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 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 dependence on chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides
  • improving overall soil health
  • greater biodiversity.

The challenges lie in the costs of switching to agroecology, producing enough food to meet demand and general 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 in by consumers, farmers and government officials, it can reshape the way we grow our food and manage our natural resources.

Due to COVID-19, it has become even more important to be aware of where our ingredients come from and how our actions can affect everyone along 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 yes, we need to talk and work together to ensure the sustainability of our nutrition supply chain so that everyone has equal access to a healthy life.

Related: Using artificial intelligence to gather knowledge about traditional nutrition

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