Originally created 03/03/03

Effort to develop herbal agriculture moves slowly



CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It looks a bit like parsley growing in neat green rows under a gray winter sky at Clemson University's Coastal Research and Education Center.

But this leafy stuff is feverfew, one of several herbs researchers think could provide a new crop for South Carolina farmers and help offset the loss of tobacco dollars.

For five years, scientists have tested whether such herbs can be grown in the state and found the plants thrived in a handful of test plots tended by farmers.

"The bottom line is they could do it and do it very well," said David Gangemi, executive director of the National Nutraceutical Center.

But outside forces have slowed the state's entry into the multibillion-dollar business of growing nutraceuticals, or foods believed to have medicinal value, says Gangemi, whose center links Clemson with the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina to promote the promising industry.

The idea of growing herbs for medicinal purposes is nothing new.

"They have been in cottage gardens forever," Robert Dufault, a professor of agriculture at the coastal research center, says as he walks amid a plot of feverfew. "But now, with the advent of big business, they are trying to cultivate them in rows to get mass amounts. That's the challenge."

And the hurdle comes at a time when nutraceuticals are flooding the domestic market from eastern Europe, China, South America and South Africa. The imports are "an inferior product, but the manufacturers are looking for the least costly material," Gangemi says.

The imported herbs sometimes sit for long periods in warehouses in high heat, robbing them of their active ingredients. Since there are no Federal Drug Administration standards for how much active ingredient the dietary supplements must have, price is the main concern, he says.

American farmers can grow better quality herbs, although at a higher price, Gangemi says. "We can grow here in South Carolina some of the best feverfew, valerian and echinacea around," Gangemi said.

Feverfew, for example, has been used to treat fever and headaches; valerian as a sedative and echinacea to treat colds.

Researchers, who have been testing varieties of herbs from around the world, want to develop a South Carolina brand that guarantees manufacturers what they buy has a specific, standard amount of the herb's active ingredient.

Following a boom in the 1990s, growth in nutraceuticals has tapered off in recent years, says Larry Boyleston, director of agribusiness development for the state Agriculture Department.

"There has been some negative press," he says. "Something like this starts out, and you get some big gains, and then it becomes a mature industry and doesn't grow as fast anymore."

Consumers, he adds, may be concerned herbals might not do what they claim to do. Even research can be contradictory.

A study last year at the University of Wisconsin found echinacea showed no benefit easing the cold symptoms of a small group of college students. But two large earlier studies in Germany found it safe and effective.

"People are street-wise," says Gangemi. "The industry is its own worst enemy. When you are going to the bank with wheelbarrows full of cash, you're not looking behind you."

Consumers, he says, will be wary "unless there are some sort of standards out there that says what you put in the bottle is in the bottle."

That's where researchers such as Dufault come in.

The challenge, he says, is to find a varieties that produce a lot of herbal material - in the case of feverfew that means abundant leaves - while at the same time producing a lot of the active ingredient.

One plot at the research center in suburban Charleston is a production study. Here the feverfew is planted in plots of from 4,200 plants per acre to as many as 43,000 per acre.

"Usually with herbs, with competition and stress, they get more pungent and maybe with these medicinal herbs the same thing may be true," says Default, who expects the results of the production study by summer.

But more stress on the plants could mean fewer leaves and less material to harvest.

The hope is that one day, South Carolina farmers can grow nutraceuticals on contract to large manufacturers, much the way tobacco growers now grow leaf under contracts. But that may take a while.

"From the marketing side, you can get this material (from abroad) that's so cheap and this whole backlash from the consumer is just catching up with the industry right now," Gangemi says.