Traditional Chinese herbs have a strong reputation for their medicinal benefits, but a Greenpeace East Asia investigation has revealed that these herbs are coated in a toxic cocktail of pesticide residues, posing long-term health risks instead.
In China, these herbal products are extensively used in daily cooking and are part of the country's culinary heritage. Many people add ginseng, red dates or chrysanthemums, for example, to their soups or tea to cure various health problems.
These herbs are also consumed outside China by people looking for alternative
medicines in a global market estimated to be worth US$60 billion annually
and growing swiftly.
But in its report, Chinese Herbs: Elixir of Health or Pesticides Cocktail?, Greenpeace East Asia explains how it tested 65 samples of Chinese herbal products and found them to be coated in pesticide residues – some of them banned in China.
Many herbal products are cultivated using chemical-intensive agriculture methods and are no longer picked in the wild – another example of the dominant chemical-based industrial agriculture system and its failure to deliver toxic-free foods.
Some of the pesticides detected in the Greenpeace East Asia investigation are considered 'highly hazardous' by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some herbal products had residue levels that would breach European food safety standards.
The WHO and European authorities have already ranked or banned some pesticides because of indications that exposure to some of them via food poses health risks due to bioaccumulation in the body. Chronic pesticide poisoning may lead to learning difficulties, hormone disruption and reproductive abnormalities.
Greenpeace is campaigning globally against what we call 'ugly food' – the widespread industrial agriculture model that damages the environment with toxic chemicals and poses threats to human health. Greenpeace champions ecological farming as a more environmentally and human friendly solution to industrial agriculture.
Ecological farming does not rely on chemical pesticides but on natural pest management techniques, rotation and diverse cropping to ensure healthy, nutritious and sufficient food for people while protecting our environment, water and wildlife from toxic poisoning.
Greenpeace East Asia is urging the Chinese government to impose stricter supervision and control of illegal pesticides, provide clear pesticides reduction timelines and commit to a road map to fully phase out chemical pesticides in agriculture. Additionally, we call on the Chinese authorities to divert financial funding towards more ecological farming practices.
We must walk this ecological path now to preserve the future of traditional herbal medicine and food production in China and globally. The challenge to switch to ecological farming and away from chemicals-based agriculture is one that all governments need to embrace.
To find out more, visit greenpeace.org/chinese-herbs
Alessandro Saccoccio is the Ecological Farming Communications Manager at Greenpeace International.
Eric Darier is a Senior Ecological Farming Campaigner at Greenpeace International