Gum arabic: depletion of natural resources or chance for sustainable development?
Also known as acacia gum, this wild-harvested product is added to bind ingredients in many foods, medicines, cosmetics, and even inks and paints. It is made from the hardened sap of various species of acacia, including Senegal Senegal, native to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. These trees are vital in the fight against climate change by retaining water and nutrients in the soil to slow the process of desertification.
We might not think twice about that E number on the back of a can when buying a soft drink. Behind these four small numbers lie complex supply chains and significant environmental and social risks. But there are also opportunities for sustainable management that could benefit local ecosystems and communities that depend on this plant.
Caitlin Schindler, TRAFFIC’s Wild at Home Project Manager“WildCheck: Assessing the risks and opportunities of trade in wild plant ingredients”, a report co-produced by TRAFFIC, FAO and the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Medicinal Plants Specialist Group, investigated the risks and opportunities of twelve star wild plant ingredients, dubbed the ‘Wild Dozen.’
“The purpose of our social and biological risk assessments is not to deter companies and consumers from using wild plant ingredients that can be harvested sustainably. Rather, it is about guiding actions to ensure the long-term survival of wild-harvested species and availability of sourced ingredients, improve marginalized livelihoods, and strengthen business ethics,” says Danna J. Leaman, co-chair. of the IUCN SSC Medicinal Plant Specialist Group.
The conservation status of this vital plant has not been assessed globally, but like many other sap-producing plants in the region, Senegal faces multiple threats including habitat decline. due to climate change, cattle grazing, droughts, fires and overexploitation.
And it’s not just the trees that are struggling. Harvesting the sap by hand at the height of the sweltering dry season is hard work, often done by local families (including children) and seasonal and nomadic workers. Despite low wages and harsh working conditions, harvesting provides much-needed income to put food on the table during the off season of other farming activities.
Sven Walter, Senior Forestry Officer at FAO, adds: “The sustainable use of wild plants has critical implications for food security and for millions of livelihoods around the world. It is time for wild plants to be given greater consideration in our efforts to protect and restore habitats, promote sustainable agri-food systems and build inclusive, resilient and sustainable economies, especially as countries work on post-Covid recovery. .
In addition to this, as the world has recently seen with many natural products, political unrest and other external factors can significantly affect producer prices and profits. This has an impact on the lack of investment in local gum arabic processing facilities. This means that many African countries export raw gum arabic at low prices and then re-import the processed gum at considerably higher costs.
A chance for sustainable growth
Global demand for wild plant ingredients is increasing – their international trade value has increased by 75% over the past two decades. Exports of unprocessed and semi-processed gum arabic have almost tripled over the past 25 years, rising from an annual average of 35,000 tons between 1992 and 1994 to 102,000 tons between 2014 and 2016.
Along with their economic potential, the WildCheck report examines where the opportunities for environmental conservation lie amidst this surge in global demand for wild plant ingredients.
Senegal Senegal and other varieties of acacia are key species used to rehabilitate dryland vegetation in the Great Green Wall Project. This project aims to create a new forest spanning the entire width of the African continent, where gum arabic would be the most commercially valuable sap-producing species, creating income opportunities for local people and contributing to the restoration of the biodiversity.
Caitlin Schindler suggests that with the support of local groups, NGOs and other businesses in partnership with the pickers, responsibly harvesting existing acacias and planting other trees could have a triple benefit. “Organizations like the Network for Natural Gums and Resins in Africa (NGARA) help producing countries sustainably develop their natural gum resources, so that marginalized communities can earn a viable living and contribute to local conservation efforts such as that limiting desertification – all the time meeting the growing global demand for the use of gum arabic in products like soft drinks.
Gum Arabic is just one example of the complex stories behind the thousands of wild-harvested ingredients in our everyday products. Read it WildCheck Report to learn more.
So what can consumers do?
- Make informed decisionskeep abreast of trends in the use of wild plants and turn your ecological and social values into action.
The WildCheck report is a starting point for learning more about Wild Dozen ingredients.
- To celebrate when you are about to buy or use a product containing a wild plant ingredient! Share a photo on social media using #IFoundWild. Tag your family and friends and encourage them to search for wild ingredients. The WildCheck report contains information on how to find these ingredients in your products.
- Buy certifiedsuch as FairWild, UEBT, FairTrade, Fair for Life, organic, PEFC and FSC, among others, where possible.
If a certified ingredient/product is not available, ask your favorite brands through their social media or contact us page:
- Do they know What are the wild-harvested plant ingredients in their products, where do they come from, and where do they come from?
- How do they ensure products are harvested sustainably and that growers and pickers are paid fairly without certification?
- What are they doing to support harvesting communities and wider biodiversity in harvesting regions?