Western North Carolina is an ideal place for such an organiztion to take root, said one of the co-founders of the new group, Greg Cumberford, who is also the president of the Bent Creek Institute, located in Asheville. Herbs are woven into the story of the area, not only in human history but in geological time, too.
“North Carolina has a long history going into the 19th Century and earlier of not only revering but also using medicinal plants from our biologically diverse ecosystem,” Cumberford told NutraIngredients-USA.
Like elsewhere, that expertise began to be lost when “better” alternatives began to become available. No one would want to go back to the era before certain drugs became available, but much valuable knowledge about herbal medicines was lost in that transition.
“That expertise was carried forward into the 20th century but then began a decline following the rise of the pharmaceutical industry after World War II,” Cumberford said.
North Carolina’s early Native American and Anglo American herbalists had a lot to work with, Cumberford said. The region has a diversity of vascular plants second in North America only to California. Unlike many other regions on the continent, the Piedmont area around Asheville was neither glaciated nor submerged, giving those plant communities uninterrupted eons to develop.
The new organization, which has a “developing” relationship with the United Natural Products Alliance in Utah, seeks to build on that biodiversity to help to help the region’s thriving natural products industry continue to grow, Cumberford said. In 2009, Bent Creek Institute and another alliance member, The North Carolina Arboretum, signed a memorandum of understanding with UNPA.
Among the plant-based ingredients common to the region are goldenseal, black cohosh, wild cherry, slippery elm, white willow, and many analogs to traditional Chinese herbs like astragalus and ginseng. Raw material ingredient suppliers like Wilcox Pharmaceuticals prospered for many decades. In the 21st century, parallel with the decline of tobacco, North Carolina-based natural products company revenues now exceed an estimated $500 million—before factoring in any impacts from Herbalife's new manufacturing plant in Winston-Salem. Many are posting year-on-year double-digit growth, according to the alliance.
The alliance also has a strong research base to draw upon, Cumberford said. North Carolina's university and community college campuses have developed specific domain expertise in botanical research and testing that draw from the state's rich, biodiverse variety of micro-climates and soil types for agriculture and that translate to premium-quality finished products. With so many consumer and practitioner trends supporting locally-sourced, traceable, and sustainably manufactured wellness products, North Carolina can help companies improve consumer reliability, transparency, and trust with strong scientific backing.
A goal of the alliance is to reinvigorate domestic supply chains and manufacturing capacity, Cumberford said. "We can help client companies leverage North Carolina's unique assets and maximize the value of their intellectual property platforms. We may be able to improve their IP further, drawing on the tremendous cultural and biological assets of our state to advance sustainable, affordable, integrative wellness products into global markets."
“That will increase the repatriation of the manufacturing of natural products in the US,” Cumberford said.
Broad range of capabilites
The alliance's member organizations can facilitate everything from grower contracts and sourcing of wildcrafted botanicals, to testing, authentication, formulation, and pilot-scale manufacturing, to workforce GMP training, to capital access, to branding of finished products. The Alliance consists of Bent Creek Institute, Bent Creek Germplasm Repository, BioNetwork, Blue Ridge Food Ventures, NC State University, the NC Natural Products Association's Blue Ridge Naturally branding project, and US Botanical Safety Laboratory. The project is supported by the GoldenLEAF Foundation.
The Natural Products Alliance of North Carolina will highlight the organization’s capabilities at its booth at the upcoming Expo West trade show.