The State of the Aromatic Plant and Essential Oil Industry
from Perfumer and Flavourist May 2019
While the love affair with all things natural continues on the high street, and more and more fragrances are launched each year, just what is the state of the aromatic plant and essential oil industry at the grassroots level? The answer is, by and large, bad.
Rapidly increasing costs of land and labour and lack of investment for more than 100 years in new plant and equipment, means that the essential oil industry is basically much smaller and less developed today than it was when Ernest Guenther travelled the world to research his magnificent book series, “The Essential Oils,” which were published in 1948. A quick review of Guenther’s works reveals the following remarkable statistics:
- 9,500 hectares of damascene roses were planted in Bulgaria in 1912
- 2,021 tonnes of Mysore sandalwood were distilled in 1927
- 132 tonnes of Reunion geranium were exported in 1938
- 1,500 tonnes of jasmine flowers were picked in Southern France in 1927
- 95 tonnes of Guyanese rosewood were harvested in 1929
- 1,600 tonnes of Florence orris roots were picked in 1949
- 2,400 hectares of Bergamot were grown in Calabria in 1956
- 300 tonnes of Parma violets were picked in Grasse in 1900
- 8,000 hectares of geraniums were planted in Algeria in 1925
Today’s essential oil industry is a pale shadow of this former glorious past. In many countries, the industry is not much more than a tourist attraction. When one visits the great former centers of global essential oil production like Provence, France, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, Florence, Italy, or even Cairo, Egypt, one will see an industry living off its past glory, selling samples and trinkets, rather than the vibrant value-added agro-industrial sector that it should be. Fragrance and flavour houses may refer to this glorious past in their brochures and promotional material, but may not even spend 10% of their R&D budget on farm technology and agro-forestry research. Admittedly, when a supply problem arises they may make attempts to overcome bottlenecks by undertaking some ad hoc projects, but a sustained long-term program of global research, development and training in essential oil production and distillation simply does not exist.
Agricultural Challenges as Joseph Hunwick, an expert on African natural oils points out, “If you look at the websites of the World Bank, UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the European Commission, and the Asian or African Development Bank you will find it hard to find a single project where aromatic plant breeding, cultivation, storage and processing plays an important part.” But, he adds, “Growing and processing essential oil plants is an ideal small-farmer activity where poor and inaccessible farmers can make a reasonable living from a small patch of land.” “This cannot be said for green chemistry, however environmentally friendly it may be,” says Hirsch. While technological developments in the field of extraction, analysis and fragrance formulation become ever-more sophisticated, the technology used to cultivate and harvest aromatic plants is not very different from what it was 100 years ago.
With few exceptions, the planting and harvesting of these plants involve large amounts of labour, most of which is provided by women and children. This labour supply is rapidly drying up, not just in Europe and North America, but also in India, Egypt, Morocco and China. Costs of production of essential oils that cannot be mechanized will continue to rise as labour becomes more and more scarce and enforcement of restrictions on the use of child labour extend further across the world.
Sustainable processing of naturals distillation is one of the world’s oldest professions. The first distillation units were found in the Indus valley 4,000 years ago. Without the discovery of distillation, the modern chemistry, pharmacy and perfume industries would not exist. Despite the importance of these skills, there are very few training centers for distillation engineers or recognized diploma courses in the art and science of distillation of aromatic substances. While perfumers are given great respect within the fragrance industry, the distillation engineers who produce fine-quality natural fragrance raw materials get little or no recognition. Tim Denny of Tasmania, perhaps the 20th century’s leading distiller, with whom I had the privilege to work, often remarked on how little has been written about the art and science of essential oil distillation (even his own brilliant book was never formally published). Distillation engineers appear to prefer to retain their ancient image of smoke, magic and alchemy. The process of distillation using water and steam is essentially an environmentally friendly one, so long as energy-efficient boilers and condenser systems are used. Too often, valuable timber or charcoal is being used to fire essential oil stills, or, in more urban conditions, costly gas and oil burners. Sadly, the majority of stills, particularly in developing countries, are extremely inefficient in terms of heat and use of spent waste. They also often use excessive amounts of water for the steam boilers and condenser units. While some attempts have been made to help farmers in places like India use spent waste from the stills as fuels—either directly or in compressed bale form—by and large most distillation units are not efficient in the use of fuel or water. Making more energy- and water-efficient distillation units could greatly increase the sustainability of the natural fragrance and cosmetic industry and reduce what are often unacceptably high carbon footprints. If mobile stills are installed, the efficiency of the process is further improved, and the carbon footprint reduced even further.
More inventions, more patents. The fragrance industry is investing in green chemistry and new methods of sensory evaluation when it comes to essential oil technology. However, figures published by Perfumer & Flavourist in 2004 clearly show that not enough research is going on in this field. In the last 23 years, the authors indicated that only 990 patents were registered in the USA concerning the use of essential oils and, of these, 41% were connected with its use in deodorants, 21% in dental products and only 6% in perfumes. Clearly something needs to change to ensure more innovation takes place in the field of essential oils.
Perfumer Education: Botanical Constraints Perfumers need to be better informed as to the agronomic and environmental characteristics of the natural ingredients they use, especially as these characteristics largely determine the long-term price and availability of such raw materials. The simple pyramid in F-1 helps describe why some types of aromatic materials are far more likely to have a long-term sustainable future than others. Florals: The much-loved florals, such as rose, tuberose and jasmine, will almost without exception become more expensive to grow and process as they require very large amounts of water, labour, fertilizer and other inputs. Moreover, land, water and labour used for florals can also grow food crops in an increasingly overpopulated world. Only where mechanization can be cost-effectively employed, as with chamomile and lavender, can the industry expect to see sustainable, affordable natural florals still on the market. Bark and roots: the bark and roots of trees are equally unlikely to survive, seeing as so many of them are won from ever-endangered, slow-growing hardwood trees. Only with cost-effective agroforestry solutions, as with sandalwood in Australia, will there be much chance that this category survives intact. Herbs and aromatic grasses: in the case of herbs and aromatic grasses (sage, basil, mint, citronella, etc.), the future looks much brighter. For a start, herbs are usually annual crops used also as foods and medicines. They receive much higher R&D investment and have a more stable multi-sector market. Furthermore, high-technology mechanized propagation, cultivation, harvesting and processing methods, similar to those used in vegetable and oil seed production, can be relatively easily adapted for these types of crops. Best of all, the aromatic waste materials are recovered from other agro-industries, meaning the cost of production and harvesting are negligible as they are by-products or residues. Aromatic leaves and twigs: All the aromatic leaves and twigs of trees, like eucalyptus, clove, orange and cinnamon, fall into this category, as do the expressed peels of almost all citrus. Here, there are still plenty of business opportunities. Take the easy-peel mandarin hybrid called kinnow, which is now harvested across the Punjab region of India. There are thousands and thousands of tonnes of this peel simply going to waste!
Can rare and endangered aromatic plants be saved from extinction? The Fair-Wild certification system work well for the collection of aromatic starting materials such as leaves (eucalyptus) or twigs (petitgrain), but this approach seldom works for bark, heartwood or roots (sandalwood, agarwood, cedarwood, etc). Such aromatic timbers are almost without exception under threat from over-exploitation. Either the industry will have to synthetically recreate these ingredients using headspace technology and the like or begin to seriously support agro-forestry investments such as Australian sandalwood and Chinese star anise. The number of endangered plants is significant. The most acutely threatened sources are:
- Indian sandalwood (Santalum album); India
- Chinese perfume plant (Aglaia odorata); Southeast Asia
- Atlas cedarwood; Morocco
- Osyris (East African sandalwood); East Africa
- Costus root (Saussurea lappa); Nepal, Bhutan, India
- Agarwood (Aquilaria); Malaysia, Vietnam
- Guiacum officinale (Lignum vitae); Venezuela, Brazil
- Buchu (Agathosma betulina); South Africa
- Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi); Himalayas
- Sassafras (Ocotea odorifera); Brazil
- Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora); Brazil
- Immortelle (Helichrysum); South Europe
Even small groups of committed people can have a big impact on this problem, as I found out when I went to work with TRP Rainforest Project in Vietnam some years ago. There, a private U.S. philanthropist, a Dutch forester and one of the world’s greatest plant pathologists combined their skills and energies to come up with a way of saving the agarwood (oud) tree from total destruction, while still offering the world’s incense and perfumery industry sustainable supplies of this highly interesting natural aromatic material. Firstly, TRP needed to work out how to grow the tree rapidly, cheaply and successfully so that they could start a massive 1-million-plant-plus replanting program (pictured). Once they had solved that problem with the help of the South Vietnamese Forest Service, TRP turned its attention to the much more difficult task of how the agarwood resin, an aromatic substance that only occurs when the tree is ill or wounded, is formed. Enter the Minnesota University Plant Pathology department, which came up with a now-patented technology of inoculation that allowed wounded and unwounded trees alike to produce resin (pictured). Together, in less than five years these few dedicated people had found a way to make sustainable natural agarwood.
Sadly, despite the subsequent “discovery” of oud by European perfumers and the consequent boom in demand for agarwood oil in western fragrances, TRP’s work has largely been ignored by the Western fragrance industry, which has primarily relied on the development of cheaper nature-identical substitutes. The TRP agarwood project cost about $2.5 million. Some would say this is a great deal of money, but compared with the long-term benefit or the amounts spent on advertising and fragrance launch parties, this figure is small. As Gary Young, founder of Forever Living, boldly stated recently, “The essential oil and aromatic raw materials industry is failing to self-police itself with respect to conserving threatened plant and animal species. Green policies and any semblance of ecological awareness with respect to these commodities often seem to originate more from the attitudes of consumers than via the raw materials producer and reseller, in spite of the existent national and international laws restricting or forbidding trade in certain threatened species.”
Both the late Mookherjee, who created one of the best private aromatic plant gardens at IFF, and Roman Kaiser at Givaudan, whose research work “Vanishing Flora—Lost Chemistry: The Scents of Endangered Plants around the World” is widely quoted by the fragrance industry, were well aware of the importance of such conservation work. However, until and unless the fragrance industry starts to enter into serious dialogue with the conservation agencies like CITES, IUCN and WWF, it still runs the risk of being “caught on the back foot.” Such was the case when CITES decided to apply a CITES 2 listing on rosewood and guaiac wood at a time and in a manner that surprised most and outraged some in the fragrance industry. With the Nagoya Protocol supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity now firmly in place, fragrance producers will be put more and more in the spotlight when it comes to their policy on sourcing raw materials from potentially endangered plants. Will it be ready?
Regulatory Aspects Regulatory status is a key factor for any flavour product. Flavours can be natural, all-natural, organic or artificial. The process through which they are prepared determines the regulatory status. However, the interpretation of the processing conditions depends on the country of origin and its regulatory system. It also depends on the intended product; naturalness is preferred in flavourants and relatively unimportant for fragrances. Compounds derived from microbial, plant and enzymatic reactions are considered natural. From a regulatory perspective, products derived from biological processes can be classified as natural, organic-compliant and organic. Typically, a flavour is considered natural when manufactured with genetically modified micro-organisms (GMO), plants or enzymes. Such flavour does not require a special labeling in the United States; however, GMO cannot be applied to manufacture organic, organic compliant and natural flavours. It should be stressed that genetic engineering using molecular biology tools is the modern version of a traditional mutation protocol employed by farmers and breeders. Classical breeding of plants and microbes has been with us for many centuries, and it can be expected that, in time, molecular biology tools will be fully accepted as more efficient and safer. Only new technologies leading to more precise changes in DNA are considered GMO. Transgenic organisms and their usage in the food chain are an entirely different category, since they cross DNA between species. However, tools such as molecular genetics, metabolic and translational engineering are indispensable in gathering knowledge about the genes and their functionalities of micro-organisms, plants and their enzymes. Overall, this scientific backbone is essential for future advances.
Conclusion: Recent progress in biological sciences provides exceptional opportunity to create innovative products. Translation of these innovations into successful processes and products heavily depends on investment into research, on being able to predict the shifting markets and regulatory environment, in addition to factors such as cost, rapid delivery, etc. Successful processes are only those that offer difference from competition, cost-effectiveness and return on investment. A captivating product is a result of a synchronized and progressive management that brings together basic and applied sciences, applications, manufacturing and marketing.