Making a Killing on Herbal Medicine

Ophiocordyceps sinensis, or caterpillar fungus, has been a staple in Tibetan and Chinese medicine for centuries. Known in Tibetan as yartsa gunbu, it first appeared in Tibetan pharmacopeia in the 15th century, and 冬虫夏草 (literally “winter worm, summer grass”) made its way into Chinese medicinal texts soon after. Created when a parasitic fungus preys upon a moth variety unique to the Tibetan Plateau, caterpillar fungus has long been regarded as a Himalayan panacea, thought to remedy everything from impotence to chronic hepatitis, back pain to male-pattern baldness. The high-country cure-all was largely unknown in the West until 1993, when Chinese runners smashed long-standing world records, and their coach credited a peculiar nutrition regimen including the fungus, earthworms and turtle blood.

Caterpillar fungus has long sold for a handsome sum, and as the availability of the medicinal mushroom is declining due to over-harvesting, market prices have been steadily increasing. Caixin reports:

The decline in supplies of traditional herbs is a decades-old phenomenon. Not so old is the noticeable difference in prices. Last year, caterpillar fungus fetched between 120,000 to 160,000 yuan per kilogram. A single mushroom stem with good appearance and quality could easily be sold for 70 to 80 yuan in Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces, the two biggest markets for the trade of Chinese medicinal supplies.

This year, statistics by the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine released in July indicate the price of Chinese caterpillar fungus jumped by roughly 30 percent.

Some critics say the sky-high prices signal a bubble in the market. In Tongrentang, the most famous retailer of traditional Chinese medicine, top-shelf caterpillar fungus is still being sold for 888 yuan per gram, more than twice the price of gold.

But others, including nomads and gatherers of the mushroom, say the prices merely reflect a countdown to the mushroom’s extinction. Rongga, a 65-year-old Tibetan female resident in Yushu county of Qinghai Province, said she has to spend at least a month in the mountains to collect less than 500 grams of the fungus to gather the equivalent of one day’s work 30 years ago.

While possibly leading to the species’ extinction, this trend is also contributing to the economic woes of Tibetans who rely on the harvest for their livelihood, and ultimately to environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau. China Dialogue has more:

One survey found that the main source of income for one-third of farmers and herders in Tibet is caterpillar fungus. In 2004 in the counties of Jiali and Chaya, two of Tibet’s poorest counties, income from collecting the fungus accounted for 70.55% and 82.36% of farming and herding incomes respectively. In areas where the fungus is found in Qinghai 80% of herders rely on it for income – it accounts for 50% to 80% of total income. It is a major, if not the only, non-herding source of income.

But the widespread collection of the caterpillar fungus has already created an ecological crisis. “In the past you could find it above 3,500 meters in Qinghai, but now it’s only found above 4,500 meters. Twenty-five years ago you could find up to 20 to 46 fungi in a square meter, now you only get between one and five,” said Lu Shunyuan, an assistant researcher at the Qinghai Academy of Social Sciences.

[…]Digging up one fungus will disturb at least thirty square centimetres of earth. If the harvest lasts 50 days, an individual collecting 20 fungi a day will break up tens of square meters of soil, and over a year millions of square meters of alpine meadows are damaged.

“It’s not just the picking – all the human activity has a bigger impact,” Lu pointed out. “The collectors going up into the mountains will light fires to cook, they take cars, lots of rubbish and fumes from the fires.” Lu said that increased collection has damaged the environment the fungi grow in, causing both quantity and quality to plummet – which has pushed prices up, which has in turn attracted more collectors. “It’s a vicious circle.”