The agricultural sector today faces tremendous difficulties. Long term cycles appear to determine commodity prices. The 1970s were characterized by the idea of shortage, related to overpopulation and the petroleum crisis. With the 1980s came oversupply and a fall in prices for the major commodities. In developing countries, the financial return for traditional exports, such as cocoa and coffee, has reached historically low levels. In Europe, an oversupply depresses prices for cereals and other alternative crops. The Eastern European countries, searching more than ever, for foreign currency to be used in the reconstruction of their economies, are attempting to export herbs. Development programs have been initiated throughout the world in the field of herbs and spices, as well as essential oils and medicinal plants. This increasing competition represents new sources of supply for traders. It is also a partial explanation for the decline in prices.
The situation, however, differs according to species, quality requirement, and level of mechanization. The "tropical" spices are produced in developing countries, often with a strong domestic market. Traditional producers of spices, such as India, have to face new competitors in Malaysia and Indonesia. Some herbs have been introduced in these countries, only for export purposes and the supply has increased where optimum production factors exists. Some countries have been able to maintain a monopolistic situation on the international market with specialty production, such as Egypt with basil and India with celery seeds. Bay leaves (Laurus nobilis) are a good illustration of a market commodity having a monopolistic producer with Turkey supplying more than 90% of the world market. Since 1977, the average import of bay leaves into Germany has been 250 t, more than 93% is of Turkish origin. Similar figures for the United States are 450 t (93%), for France 200 t (87%), and for Great Britain 100 t (91%). Many countries have tried to penetrate the bay leaf market offering prices significantly below the Turkish prices. New producers, however, cannot maintain their positions more than one or two years at these price level. Due to the nuclear accident of Chernobyl and supply shortages, the prices of bay were exceptionally high in 1986 and 1987. The percentage of bay leaves coming from Turkey fell to 78% with the benefit going to Spain, Morocco, and Yugoslavia, but Turkey had recovered 99% of the American market by 1988 (Table 1).
The competition is more open for other species when technology and production practices may either increase the yield, reduce the production costs, or allow a better quality at a higher price. The oregano market is particularly interesting with the competition of three major producers (Mexico, Greece, and Turkey), where production is mainly from wild harvesting and the labor cost is the determinant. Israel has been very successful with oregano, introducing selected cultivars and mechanization and able to market at a price very similar to that of Turkey (Fig. 1). Thyme is another example of increasing competitiveness. The world leader in production of thyme leaves is Spain (2, 000 t/year). Most of the harvesting comes from wild plants of different species. In 1970, a few producers started to cultivate thyme in France, benefiting from research on breeding and selection. Clonal selections now combine regular quality with high yield. Since the beginning, the initiative has been supported by Ducros, the main trader in Europe, who has contracted with domestic producers at a relatively high price. This price has enabled production level to reach 100 t of dried leaves per year. The problem is now how to expand. Further expansion of thyme cultivation cannot be considered at current prices and the demand for quality thyme is now satisfied. Any expansion of production will induce a fall in price, progressively reaching the Spanish price (Fig. 2). This is the limit of a development based on better quality standards.
There are a number of herbs such as parsley, dill, and tarragon which are mainly produced and used in industrialized countries. A combination of good cultivars, dehydration processes, and intensive cultivation techniques have allowed these countries a dominant place in the dried market for these plants.
Large farms, dealing with vegetable dehydration, are producing dried herbs on a large scale. The domestic production of dried herbs is currently covering only a very small part of the demand. Some growers, like those in Arizona, have obtained good prices for sage, basil, and a few other herbs (approximately $6/kg, more than twice the international price). The domestic production of dried herbs is bought by traders concerned for a higher quality and a more secure supply. In the example of thyme, the demand for domestic production is rather small, and new producers may not expect a high price if the domestic cultivation of dried herbs increases substantially. Organic production allows a better margin of profit, especially for well managed farms like Trout Lake farm in Washington State where 200 ha of herbs are organically grown. Weed control in this type of production system is a crucial point for it is often difficult, after a mechanized harvest, to clean weeds from the final dried produce.
Unfortunately, there are few technical production guides available, and few breeding programs have been initiated. Successful development in production of herbs and spices requires good control of cultivation practices, of postharvest processing and storage, and of marketing technique. Consequently, success calls for active producers, open to innovation and in a permanent dialogue with researchers and consumers.
We have witnessed an increasing role for fresh and frozen herbs at the expense of the traditional dried form. In addition to the well-known oleoresins, more and more sophisticated forms of material and marketing are going to be used in the food industry. Today we have supercritical CO2 extracts, isolates from essential oils, and aromas produced by cell cultures or other biotechnological processes. A "new" crop, unfortunately, quickly can become an "out of date" crop!
|1978||88||1.34||Yugoslavia (10%, $0.55)|
|1979||96||1.55||Greece (3%, $1.18)|
|1980||96||1.81||Greece (2%, $1.20)|
|1981||91||1.70||Albania (5%, $0.94)|
|1982||96||1.26||India (2%, $0.85)|
|1983||96||1.32||Greece (4%, $1.05)|
|1985||98||1.19||China (1%, $3.4)|
|1986||83||1.48||Portugal (4%, $1.42) Albania (2%, $2.50) Spain (l%, $3,11) Morocco (1%, $2.91)|
|1987||78||2.41||Germany (7%, $2,74) Spain (5%, $2.91) Portugal (3%, $1.75) Morocco (l%, $2.10) Yugoslavia (1%, $1.26)|
|1988||99||1.58||Mexico (1%, 1.26)|
|Spain||28,000||Anise, saffron, mint, cumin, poppy, datura|
|France||20,000||Lavandin, poppy, clary sage, parsley, tarragon, thyme|
|Italy||2,800||Mint, tarragon, orris, sage|
|Netherlands||2,200||Poppy, parsley, caraway, digitalis, evening primrose|
|Germany||2,000||Mint, parsley, thyme, balm|
|U.K.||800||Parsley, evening primrose|