Good Agricultural and Collection Practices for Medicinal Plants (or GACP for short) are a set of guidelines developed in 2003 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), aimed at improving the safety, efficacy and sustainability of medicinal plant material being used in herbal medicines in the market.

The original guidelines are, to be frank, quite boring; made up of 80 pages of heavy text the document is very unlikely to be high up on any farmer’s reading list. However, as dull as they may be, the guidelines are very important and deserve to be known to everyone who grows, collects or processes medicinal herbs.

In very simple terms Good Agricultural and Collection Practices for Medicinal Plants have been developed because of the growing concern of the amount of medicinal plant material being produced using Bad Agricultural and Collection Practices. There are countless examples of ‘bad’ practices; it may be walking on the herbs, harvesting them at the wrong time of year or storing them in dirty sacks. The end result is a product that may be unsafe, ineffective or unsustainable.

Sometimes what we may consider to be 'bad' practices are simply traditional practices - they just don't meet our quality requirements
A close look at a root that hasn't been dried or stored properly may reveal fungal growth
Many bad practices just require a change in mindset. Education is key.

In most cases the consequences of bad practices are not life-threatening, but in a few rare cases the consequences can be serious; herbs contaminated with heavy metals, for example, can lead to liver/kidney failure; a misidentified or adulterated species can be fatal.

In the last decade or two there have been several widely publicised cases of herbal medicines causing serious health problems (such as arsenic poisoning, or kidney damage caused by species adulteration). Although such cases are very rare, they have shone a spotlight on the less desirable elements of the herbal industry, putting governments under pressure to tighten regulations and provide consumers with greater safety and quality assurance.

This has led to some rather draconian legislation such as the THMPD in the EU, which may well have reduced the risk of consumer illness, but has also had the effect of significantly reducing the availability of herbal products in the market. One of the few positives that has come out of this is a greater emphasis on the need for GACP with more support for developing good practices on the ground.

I became aware of the GACP guidelines through Pukka Herbs, who distributed the guidelines to every supplier / potential supplier as soon as they were released in 2003. But it wasn’t until I actually started working part-time for Pukka in 2006 that I got involved in the nitty-gritty details. The job description they gave me was basically to help them embed GACP in their supply chain, which required working closely with their suppliers in India and Sri Lanka – something I have continued doing ever since.

As part of my GACP mission I started working with Surie to develop some basic training material – I would write the content and Surie would do the illustrations. We developed a series of simple booklets that were translated into the various different languages of Pukka’s suppliers.

Surie's illustration showing unsustainable harvesting of shatavari (wild asparagus)
The long-term effects of unsustainable harvesting...
... and a sustainable method for harvesting roots, ensuring it will grow back the following year

Largely because of this work, in 2008 I was invited to work as a consultant for FAO India on a project called “Organic Production of Under-utilized Medicinal, Aromatic and Natural Dye Plants (MADP) Programme for Sustainable Livelihoods in South Asia”. One of the main objectives of the job was to develop a wider set of GACP training tools for farmers, which included a more detailed illustrated booklet, an online ‘cause-effect’ training tool and a training film. I have added most of these to the page on GACP Training Tools.

For us it was important for us to practice what we preached, and our projects at Biolaya were an opportunity to do that. Whether it was post-harvest processing of our kutki, or sustainable wild collection of oregano, they provided opportunities to experiment with implementing the standards, as well as valuable case-studies to share with others.

We did a lot of work on GACP, but in the bigger scheme of things we barely scratched the surface. The principles remain more or less the same regardless of region or species, but ‘good’ practices can vary enormously. There is a need for a much wider variety of farmer-friendly guidelines and technologies that can be adapted to the many different environmental and economic contexts in which herbs are grown.

If more producers start implementing GACP we will see the results in the quality of the finished products. Then hopefully the spotlight can be moved away from ‘what can go wrong’, and once again be shone on the incredible benefits of plant-based medicine.

Removing foreign matter (normally bits of grass) before putting kutki in the dryer
Hygiene and cleanliness is at the heart of GACP
Recording-keeping is an essential part of maintaining traceability
A solar dryer like this helps retain medicinal compounds and protects the herbs from rain and wandering animals
If herbs do need to be dried in the sun they should be laid out on a clean surface and kept far away from potential sources of contamination