Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

by Josef Brinckmann
HerbalGram. 2019; American Botanical Council

This opinion piece is based partly on direct observations from fieldwork over the decades with communities in rural and remote areas who depend on wild collection and farming of medicinal plants for some or all of their household income. Flowering, fruiting, harvesting periods, and yields of many of these plants have become erratic.1 My opinions also are informed by coming of age around the start of the modern environmental movement.While 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg inspired teenagers across the world with her proclamation in January 2019 that “our house is on fire,”3 which I applaud, I actually thought that “our house” was on fire 50 years ago.

This climate crisis didn’t show up unannounced. Some readers of this opinion piece may not believe that the climate crisis has been caused by human activity — and, therefore, cannot be corrected by human intervention. However, many human-related issues, which have become worse over the last half-century, signal the need for immediate action.

These issues include anthropogenic contamination (such as vehicle exhaust, heavy metals from industrial pollution,4 the now-widespread nonpoint-source pesticide pollution from conventional agriculture due to long-range atmospheric transport,5 and microplastic particles detected in the air, soil,6 and oceans7), land-use changes over the centuries (e.g., converting meadows and forests to farmland and grazing land), loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat, plant relationships with pollinators disrupted by phenological changes,8 pollinator disappearance, species extinctions, and so on.

A 2019 study by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Stockholm University found that nearly 600 plant species have gone extinct since the publication of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ 1753 Species Plantarum.9,10 In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued a report stating that the rate of species extinctions is accelerating: Up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, with agriculture cited as one of the main threats.11

Growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, several occurrences sounded existential alarm bells. Significant events, perhaps because they were so alarming, caused me to pay closer attention, transformed the way I experience the natural world and made me take notice of how humans possess such a unique ability to muck it all up.

One could be tempted to view each anthropogenic hazard in a vacuum (i.e., as a separate or unconnected event). But, if one looks closely, one can see the connections among the seemingly separate dots. Contrary to the jarring “Control Voice” heard at the start and end of the early 1960s episodes of “The Outer Limits” television show, something was, indeed, wrong with (what we were seeing on) the television set. In the meantime, some have attempted to “adjust the picture” and “take control of the horizontal and the vertical.” Climatologists, conservation biologists, ecologists, environmentalists, naturalists, other “ists,” and astute observers have been trying, in numerous ways, to explain what we were beginning to witness more than 50 years ago, which today is accelerating exponentially.

When I was a boy, one could not only smell the polluted air in industrialized and urban areas, but one could see it. It was brown and irritating to the nose and eyes. Occasional ozone alerts were issued by the authorities: “Stay indoors.” “Don’t breathe.” The sky was falling, it seemed. The Cuyahoga River was on fire in Cleveland, Ohio12; an entire neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, built atop a 1940s chemical landfill site, was experiencing toxic fumes and explosions in homes and schools (the Love Canal disaster)13; and concerns about the effects of acid rain on ecosystem integrity entered the public discussion.14 Air and water pollution in the United States probably reached its highest levels in the late 1960s.15 Federal air pollution laws were passed in 1955, 1963, 1965, and 1967, culminating with the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the same year.16 The Clean Water Act became law in 1972.17

Although United States policymakers are inexplicably trying to deregulate and dismantle environmental protections, air and water quality have improved in the United States over the past 50 years due to the awareness built from the modern environmental movement and enforcement of environmental protection laws. The same cannot be said for the four other most populous countries in the world. Pollution and environmental degradation have reached dangerous levels in China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil.

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich stirred up awareness about overpopulation and overconsumption with his controversial book The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books).18,19 In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s seminal book Diet for a Small Planet (Ballantine Books) aimed to illuminate and quantify the negative environmental impacts of large-scale meat production.20 That book influenced my decision to become a vegetarian. Clear-cutting of ancient rainforests in the Amazon region was increasing, and fires were burning, and still are. Cattle ranching and cultivating soybeans (Glycine max, Fabaceae) for animal feed reportedly have been the main drivers of Amazon deforestation since 1970.21

In the mid-1970s, I recall being very excited to attend a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley by explorer and oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997). It wasn’t uplifting. The message from this remarkable scientist seemed to be that it may already be too late. “The oceans are dying” was his dark theme.22 The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State was decommissioned back then, as well, but has, for decades, continued to threaten the Columbia River with radioactive contamination,23 just as the 2011 Fukushima meltdown continues to threaten the seas, and all life dependent on the seas, with nuclear pollution.24

It now seems that idealistic hippies may have been right that everything in nature is interconnected.25 This can be illustrated by the fact that residues of “legacy pesticides” (e.g., DDT) as well as new “current use pesticides” (CUPs) have been detected in Arctic ice caps, evidence of long-range atmospheric transport.26 Wildflowers and bee pollen also are found to be contaminated by a wide range of pesticide chemicals used in conventional agriculture.27 The phenomenon described as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a relatively new area of research associated with the toxicity of agrochemicals and possibly other factors.28 Insecticides, herbicides, and pesticides do not stay down on the farm. For example, the widespread use of glyphosate in conventional agriculture has led to global environmental contamination, now detected in soil, air, water, and human urine.29 Despite the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law of 1516, which is still in effect), glyphosate is now detectable in nearly all German beers.30

What does all of this have to do with the survival of medicinal and aromatic plants and herbal medicine? Everything, in my opinion. Climate change is observed to impact not only the quality and geographical distribution of wild plants — for example, the mountain forest liana Schisandra sphenanthera (Schisandraceae)31 and high-altitude Rhodiola species (Crassulaceae)32 — but also the ability of species to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, as reported for the desert steppe species Glycyrrhiza uralensis (Fabaceae).33 It is not yet known whether certain species can adapt or migrate rapidly enough to survive. If they do survive, it is not known what changes in chemical composition and content may occur, and, correspondingly, what changes in pharmacological action would occur. In addition, animals need plants. It is already predicted that Australia’s koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) may go extinct partly due to drought-driven changes in the chemical composition of Eucalyptus spp. (Myrtaceae) leaves.34 The koala is a specialist that depends almost entirely on eucalyptus trees for shelter and its leaves for nutrition. Similarly, the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a specialist, dependent on bamboo habitat. Climate change may reduce more than a third of the giant panda’s bamboo habitat over the next 80 years.35

Rapid loss of biodiversity on this planet is an existential threat and corresponds to species extinctions; food, water, and medicine insecurity; climate events increasing in frequency and severity; and “climate refugees,” or the growing number of people being displaced because they are not able to live in once-habitable areas (e.g., coastal regions) and farmers and pastoralists unable to survive due to prolonged droughts, desertification, and salinization of agricultural land.

It may not be fair to be upset with friends because they are asleep. But how many wake-up calls does one need to see the forest for the trees? It may be time to finally wake up, plant a tree or many trees, leave fossil fuels behind as fast as you can, and do something, anything — and everything — you are able to do.

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