Essential oils, a gateway for sustainable agriculture

PLANTS ARE the foundation of all life on Earth as they provide food and medicine to increasing population of the world. Essential oils are another value added product of the plants which serve as natural, chemical-free alternatives to Allopathic medicines, harmful cosmetic and toxic fragrances. Rising health concern and the search for natural alternatives to modern medicine has driven the usage of essential oils for alternative healing and human well being. They have a great potential to uplift the agriculture sector of Pakistan which is one of the most important sectors the back bone of the economy of the country. This sector contributes 21 per cent of GDP and 45 per cent of countrys labour force. It is the sector providing food security, generating overall economic growth, reducing poverty and the transforming towards industrialization. The agriculture sector in Pakistan is facing many problems including the low productivity of important cash crops, high production cost, lack of infrastructure, and above all, the WTO regulations for export of food as well as cut flowers.  Apart from the major and minor crops, the agricultural byproducts can also play vital role in the strengthening of this sector. One of the most important byproduct of plants is the essential oils that have a potential to add life in this important sector of our country.

The term essential is coined from the French essence and is an aromatic volatile substance extracted by distillation or expression from single plant specie. The resulting oil should be virgin and not added with any other substance during and after processing of extraction. These oils are obtained from blossoms, seeds, fruits, fruit peels, leaves, stems, barks, wood, roots, and plant secretions and are being used in fragrances, cosmetics, soaps and other household products, in foods, confectionary, pharmaceutical products and cigarettes. The advanced prospective is its use as natural pesticides and edible coatings emerged with a remarkable scope of its commercialization for a world with organic and safe food. Medicinal attributes of these essential oils is also on a trend to increase its use in pharmaceutical industries for preparation of herbal drugs very extensively and consumers are showing their preference in herbal medicines due to increased awareness of health hazards and high price of synthetic medicines. Aromatherapy is on increase worldwide with increased openings for the essential oils in this industry.

The world total essential oil production is estimated to be 100,000 to 110,000 MT with major producers as Brazil, China, USA, Egypt, India, Mexico, Guatemala and Indonesia and major consumers as the USA with 40 per cent, Western Europe with 30 per cent, Japan with 7 per cent and rest of the world with 23 per cent total consumption. Pakistani market for essential oils is infinitesimal and represents less than 1 per cent of the world market. At present, the local production of essential oils is almost non-existent but local consumption is estimated to be 86,000 kg per annum. All the local demand for the essential oil is met by import from China, Brazil and France.

The important essential oils used by these multinational companies are mainly lavender, citronella ginger grass, basil, mint, lemon grass, eucalyptus, cedar wood, celery seed oil, fennel and other oils in a range of products in the country.  Out of these the essential oils currently being produced in Pakistan are orange and lemon oils chiefly from citrus fruit extraction industry where orange and lemon oil are the byproduct of the extraction process, with a fraction of rose essential oils. There is a dire need to develop essential oil bearing plants sectors in the country.

There are variety of such plants growing in wild naturally, as well as some exotic plants can also be introduced as minor crops in the agriculture sector to meet the local consumption of essential oil, making it possible for the country to save and to earn foreign exchange. Some potential essential oil producing plants of Pakistan are lavender, rosemary, ginger, sandal wood, lemon grass and jasmine. Some organizations are working to develop cultivation techniques for few of these plants and in this context Pakistan Museum of Natural History has cultivated lavender and rosemary on experimental basis, with a success rate of 95 per cent. The plants will be displayed in the botanical garden of PMNH in the coming season for public education and awareness.

Many projects can be developed for the production process, good agriculture practices, postharvest handling and extraction process of some high value essential oil bearing crops and to popularize this knowledge to farmers for its successful incorporation in the cropping system. There is also need to make efforts to produce export quality essential oil in sufficient quantity for a smooth supply to industries and international market. An effective marketing system and a large-scale campaign for motivation of the farmers for essential oil production also need particular attention.

The writer is Research Associate in Pakistan Museum of Natural History, Islamabad.

<shanu.rizvi@gmail.com>

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