The Oregano Story

The Oregano Story

I started documenting Himalayan herbs in 2002, and over the following few years built up a database of photographs of well over a hundred species. I had seen a few wild oregano plants growing here and there, but for some reason I didn’t even take a single photograph of it for almost four years.

It wasn’t until we stumbled across a huge expanse of the most incredibly aromatic oregano in a meadow high above the Kullu valley that I started to take it seriously. We were on our way back from a relatively unsuccessful hunt for threatened species and were struck by the contrast between the abundance of vibrant oregano in the meadow and the scarcity of the herbs we had been searching for.

We started asking around to find out what the local villagers knew of the oregano, and to our surprise literally not a single person knew of any use. Nobody even had a name for it: it was simply ghaas (grass). Totally bekaar (useless) ghaas!

We knew it was anything but useless though; it tasted great, and the fact that there was so much of it, and that it could easily be harvested sustainably, presented a valuable opportunity: if herb collectors could earn money from harvesting oregano instead of the herbs they usually harvest, it could significantly reduce pressure on the threatened species in their natural habitat – it was a simple but potentially vital piece in our conservation puzzle.

The meadow where we first stumbled across oregano
In some areas it grows in abundance (the light green plants are all oregano)
A simple but potentially vital piece in our conservation puzzle

Adding Value
So we started thinking about what kind of oregano product we could develop to support a large-scale wild collection project. Initially we focused on the obvious – to dry it and sell it as a culinary herb, but it didn’t take long to discover that the market was already flooded with cheap, mass-produced oregano. We would need to do something different for our oregano to stand out from the crowd.

At the time I wasn’t aware of the remarkable properties of oregano essential oil. In hindsight, all the signs were there; I even developed an infected wound on my toe, which I stubbornly refused to treat with antibiotics. Instead I spent weeks researching and experimenting with every herbal poultice, every natural remedy I could think of – everything except for oregano oil. Eventually I succumbed to antibiotics.

It took about six months before I came across an article on the incredible antimicrobial properties of oregano oil and had a eureka moment. Essential oil distillation could open up countless options for adding value – either by selling the pure essential oil or by using it as an ingredient in other antimicrobial products. We had no experience of distillation, nor was there any guarantee that the Himalayan oregano oil would be any good, but we had to try it.

Oregano Research
We started devouring literature on oregano oil and distillation; according to many websites, the best quality oregano oil is wild-collected from high altitudes (we definitely ticked that box), and if it is to be taken internally it should have a high ‘carvacrol’ content (something we needed to find out). There was plenty of information on the Internet but everything we could find was based on Mediterranean oregano and – as far as we could work out – nobody had done any work on Himalayan oregano oil.

So in 2007 we ordered a small distillation clevenger – a fragile glass apparatus that miraculously survived a 10-hour journey from Punjab strapped to the roof of a bus – and distilled our first few bottles of oregano essential oil.

Distilling our first samples of oregano oil

For those who are familiar with Mediterranean oregano oil, the Himalayan variety has a deeper, more pungent aroma, in some ways more similar to thyme oil. But it is still distinctly recognisable as oregano oil, and has the same fiery qualities that will leave you screaming if it touches sensitive parts of the body!

We sent samples to an SGS laboratory in Delhi to test the essential oil profile. The results were promising – the first batches came back showing a carvacrol content of between 72% and 78%, which was comparable to some of the best quality oregano oil on the market (n.b. later results varied massively  – I have written about this in more detail in research results).

By this point the microbiologists at SGS were also getting excited by the research, and together we came up with a plan to test the oregano oil against one of the heavyweights of the microbial world – the hospital superbug, MRSA. The results were remarkable – the Himalayan oregano oil eradicated MRSA in dilutions of 1 in 1000 and was more effective than all of the 18 other antimicrobial agents it was compared against. It seemed we had stumbled across something really rather special.

On my next visit to England I took a few bottles with me to give to Vyv Salisbury, a friend of a friend who was a professor of microbiology at the University of West of England. She seemed a little sceptical at first but very generously carried out some tests for us. And when she had the results back I think she was even more surprised than us!

By now we had more than enough evidence to start getting excited. We now had the potential to create a truly pioneering project, exploring new frontiers in both conservation and healthcare. And it wasn’t any old healthcare issue – we had stumbled into what has been described as one of the (human) world’s most serious emerging problems.

We started thinking about all the different antimicrobial products we could make. MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria had already become a major issue in hospitals and nursing homes in the West and at the time this seemed a logical area to focus on. We explored different ideas, including sprays, wipes, soaps and plasters – eventually deciding to focus on an antibacterial spray – and gradually started piecing together a plan.

For any plan to work though, we would need more resources. We were operating on a shoe-string from a combination of donations from generous supporters as well as my own income from working as a freelance consultant for Pukka Herbs and FAO. We had enough to employ a small team of local people, but we would need to raise more funds if we were to take the project to the next level.

Students testing Himalayan oregano oil at the University of West of England

SEED Award
A couple of years earlier we had teamed up with a local NGO and a UK-based company to apply for a SEED Award – a UN funded programme that supports entrepreneurial partnerships that contribute towards sustainable development. On that occasion our project – working with women’s groups to produce organic apricot oil – wasn’t selected. But two years on, I could see that we had the beginnings of a partnership that would make an excellent case for a SEED Award.

So in 2008 we teamed up with Jagriti (a local NGO) and the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Research and Development (a government research institute) along with our original research partners at SGS and UWE and submitted an application for a SEED Award. Amazingly, our project – Himalayan Oregano against MRSA – was selected as one of fifteen winners from 383 applicants from around the world.

I don’t think we had realised the potential impact of a SEED Award; as soon as they sent out their official press release we found our project splashed over newspapers around the world with headlines such as “miracle cure found for hospital superbug!” and other rather exaggerated claims (my first direct experience of how much information can be manipulated by the media to sell stories).

We were even asked by BBC World News to give a live interview. To be honest, I was quite relieved to be too remote for their interview team to reach me – I really hadn’t expected to find myself telling (what seemed like) the whole world about the project on live television! Luckily though, Vyv did an excellent job on our behalf – and most importantly, clarified that the primary objective of the project was conservation of threatened herb species and that the MRSA research was in still very early days.

Receiving the SEED award from Sigmar Gabriel at an event in Delhi in 2008
The SEED Award

Scaling Up
The SEED Award gave us a year’s support programme with a budget of $20,000 to spend on whatever we needed to take the project to the next level. This was a massive boost, as we really did have a lot to do and in India a small amount can go a long way. In the short-term, we needed to scale up production, do a lot more research into the oil’s antimicrobial properties, and develop a business plan, including some serious research into a market we knew little about.

The first step was to develop a wild harvest management plan. There were already some good guidelines on setting up wild collection projects developed by the FairWild Foundation; our plan was to put these systems in place from the beginning so that, as and when we were ready, we could apply for FairWild certification.

We sent teams of people to survey every south facing meadow above 3000m altitude (and found some spectacular fields of oregano); we surveyed villages to identify potential collectors, trained and registered over 40 people; we purchased new distillation units, and between July and September they were in full operation almost every day.

Meanwhile, each of the project partners continued contributing in their own way; Jagriti helped set up collector groups in the Lag Valley and started experimenting with making oregano soap; SGS and UWE continued doing research in the lab, with the latter introducing it into their MSc programme; UWE’s ‘business development’ department also carried out a market research study. The G.B. Pant institute, with their expertise in medicinal plants, provided valuable advice on all plant-related matters.

In a relatively short time we had a surprisingly slick operation up and running with Raju coordinating collection and transportation in the field, Ashok in charge of distillation and Surie overseeing the whole operation. With the help of Tenzin, a local IT genius, we created some basic but very useful/awesome record-keeping software that enabled us to trace every batch of essential oil back to the meadow where it was collected from with details of the collectors who harvested it (see field to shelf for more details).

The SEED Award helped us scale up production
We set up small groups of collectors all over the valley
We also set up a new distillation unit in Dashal

With essential oil production up and running, we could turn our attention to working on a business plan. Following all the publicity from the SEED Award, we had a lot of enquiries from companies and individuals who were interested in buying pure oregano oil. Most discussions with companies didn’t last long as our cost of production was clearly more than they were willing to pay.

We were also contacted by a lot of individuals who were willing to pay a premium price. Most people only wanted a couple of 10ml bottles, which in theory should have been simple to arrange, but bizarrely we couldn’t find any way of legally sending oil out of the valley; every single post office and courier refused to send liquids, and the only way we got around it was to smuggle each bottle in a complementary pair of socks. We had a lot of happy customers (with warm feet), but ultimately selling undiluted oil was a temporary solution as we only had limited stock; to create a financially viable business we needed to added more value using smaller quantities of the precious oil (or charge an extortionate amount for a 10ml bottle).

In July 2009 we were joined by Nomita, who took up the task of continuing the market research started by UWE. We focused on exploring different options for creating an antibacterial spray for use in small private hospitals and nursing homes in the UK, where MRSA was a serious problem. The general response was very positive and everything seemed to be flowing so well…. that was until Nomita’s research unearthed a game-changing obstacle: the Biocidal Products Directive (BPD).

The BPD is an EU directive that is intended to monitor the trade and use of ‘biocidal’ products. A biocide is defined as “a chemical substance or microorganism intended to destroy, deter, render harmless, or exert a controlling effect on any harmful organism by chemical or biological means”. Any product (or ingredient) in the EU that claims to have antibacterial or antifungal properties must be registered under the BPD. Unfortunately, the BPD does not make allowances for relatively innocuous essential oils; according to the law, oregano oil sits alongside other biocidal products such as DDT and other toxic pesticides. When we talked it through with the authorities in the UK they politely informed us that registering our oregano oil to make an antibacterial spray would cost us in the region of £500,000! (which I worked out was the equivalent of renting our office in Deushar for another 45,000 years…).

We researched the regulations in other countries that were battling MRSA and came up against similar legislative obstacles (although none as stringent or expensive as the BPD). Being a tiny company with limited capacity for production (and limited availability of wild oregano), there was no way we could consider going down this route. Our SEED project, Himalayan Oregano against MRSA, would need to take a different path (and probably change its name).

The Domestic Market
India, of course, had no such regulations regarding antibacterial claims. And it has a lot of bacteria. So, as we probably should have done from the beginning, we started researching and designing products for the Indian market. There appeared to be no significant problem with MRSA and other drug-resistant bacteria Indian hospitals, so we had to explore new directions. The most obvious route was to focus on basic hygiene – surely there would be demand for a multipurpose spray, wipe or gel to help protect against one of India’s greatest curses: the Delhi Belly?

There were many other potential applications beyond maintaining hygiene. One that I was (and still am) particularly interested in is the use of oregano oil in organic seed treatment. In conventional (non-organic) farming seeds are often soaked in fungicidal solutions before being sown. Organic farmers don’t have this option, and there are currently limited organic methods for treating seeds. We prepared a proposal to take up this research with an institute in Bangalore, but the project never gained much traction and the idea was shelved. I still think it has massive potential and is an important area of research waiting to happen…

In the end we made a spray and a cream. The spray – which we called ‘Green Clean’ – was a beautiful combination of oregano and juniper oil (which we collected in remote valleys in Lahaul), along with wild lemongrass oil from Bhutan and small amounts of cinnamon and clove oil (which also have powerful antimicrobial properties). The cream was made with Aloe Vera gel and rose-hip oil (the rose hips were collected locally and outsourced for CO2 extraction in Rajasthan).

We reached the point where we had a couple of good products and were ready to prepare a business plan to raise funds to help take it to the next level. Unfortunately, this was the same time that Surie had to step out of Biolaya to take care of a troubled family business and, combined with other challenges, it was too much for me to pick up the pieces on my own. So sadly, having come this far, the project stalled and after a year or so of chasing our tails we had to let go.

The challenge of creating a profitable enterprise from our oregano oil was a major undertaking and in hindsight I think we may have bitten off more than we could chew – especially when SEED’s year of support came to an end and we had to find a way to sustain the project, which was still a long way from standing on its own feet. But I still believe the concept has great potential.

With all the work we did on trying to create a viable business model, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the main purpose of the enterprise was conservation. The most important thing, regardless of the end product, was for the project to reduce herb collectors’ dependency on collection of threatened species of medicinal plants.

So, to what extent did we achieve this? And to what extent does this conservation model have potential if it could be scaled up and/or replicated elsewhere? It’s a question without clear answers, and one I explore in more detail in wild reflections.