Sep 072016

Wild ginseng grows in Tennessee, especially in and around the Smokies. There is a huge demand for wild ginseng in China. Inevitably, this leads to illegal ginseng poaching. I have heard a few complaints in Tennessee about the problem over the years, but this year there have been a series of stories in larger media outlets, including this feature story in Foreign Policy:

The global market for ginseng root, popularly used as an herbal supplement, is estimated at more than $2 billion. Long a staple of traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng products are also ubiquitous in Korea and increasingly popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries with large ethnic Chinese populations….

Due to centuries of overharvesting, however, wild roots are rare commodities. In East Asia, native stocks are nearly extinct; in China and Russia, they are banned from being traded. The only other place where ginseng is indigenous is the eastern half of North America, where it grows amid ferns, trillium, bloodroot, and other low-lying vegetation. Concerned about overharvesting, Canada has prohibited the sale of wild roots. In the United States, it’s still legal — but scientists have observed stocks in Appalachia, where ginseng once flourished, dipping over the last decade.

This sounds like an interesting business meeting:

Three years ago, a man saying he worked for Hang Fat, one of China’s biggest ginseng wholesalers, showed up in Boone: “skinny jeans, little 20-year-old, earrings all in his ear,” Cornett recalls. Once a small family firm that traded in deer antlers and shark fins, Hang Fat has carved out a niche over the past two decades by importing American ginseng, sorting and grading it based on quality, then shipping it to mainland China. Between 2011 and 2013, according to an internal business prospectus, Hang Fat’s net profits rose an average of 70 percent annually.

After the Chinese businessman arrived on Cornett’s doorstep, he took pictures of the roots on offer, sent them to his boss, and quickly closed the deal on a purchase. Cornett hopes selling his homegrown crop will eventually be so easy — if he can get it safely to market….

There is at least one way to legally make money from this whole mess, however:

To tackle poaching in the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park, plant-protection specialist Jim Corbin has devised a reddish dye to mark ginseng roots that is visible only under black light. His team has dyed more than 43,000 plants to date. Between 2010 and 2014, the NPS says Corbin’s system helped convict more than 40 poachers who tried to sell illegally foraged roots.

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