Cropwatch Issue 1.

Copyright Tony Burfield Jan 2004.

We would like to introduce the first bulletin of “Cropwatch” – an occasional bulletin focussing on various issues surrounding the status and exploitation of aromatic & medicinal crops. In this first issue we review and comment on some current news items which you may have missed

“The Sandalwood tree is being smuggled out of existence.”

With the above quote from the Earth Report (2000) in mind its not surprising that the combination of excessive demand and shortage of supply for East Indian Sandalwood oil from Santalum album has lead to the prices rising to around $700-750/Kg in recent months. Worries about the present sustainability of Sandalwood supplies, lead to a clampdown on Sandalwood harvesting and distillation by the Indian authorities in 1995, so that by now much or most of the E.I. Sandalwood oil coming on to the market is smuggled. The international essential oil trade itself tends to be tight-lipped about its precise sources of the oil. Anon (2002) reports that mobile squads of Forest Department officials in Chitradurga and Shimoga districts to curb sandalwood smuggling from the 30 or so private sandalwood-based factories in Andarha Pradesh close to the Karnataka border. Our information is that advance warning of impending visits of officials is causing a few quality control problems amongst producers - since impending visits of officials cause a panicked acceleration of the distillation process in order to quickly finish the task and “spirit away” the end-product. This over-hasty production, in turn, often results in Sandalwood oils that fail the ISO 3518 tests - for example with respect to solubility of the oil in 70% ethanol.

Uses. Sandalwood has long been prized for carving and for tourist souvenirs; it is used as an ingredient of joss-stick manufacture (especially in China & Japan) in the form of powder, wooden spills etc. Export of Sandalwood logs is theoretically prohibited from India, and so the export of lower oil-yielding Sandalwood logs from Australia (S. spicatum) has taken over much of this market.

Sandalwood oil E.I. is used for its creamy, precious fine wood notes and blending properties in perfumery and cosmetics, and in aromatherapy for its anti-depressant, sedative & calminative effects, useful in alleviating stress and nervous tension (Sheppard-Hanger 1995). Other Sandalwood oils, where available, often do not possess the smooth creaminess and present a more woody and occasionally a somewhat urinic odour, character compared with the East Indian sourced oil. In spite of the worries about sustainability and smuggling, the essential oil of S. album is still, for example, stipulated as an obligatory oil to study for Aromatherapy National Occupational Standards in the UK (see and click on Aromatherapy and then AY2) – the author has asked the NOS to reconsider this listing.

Distillation. Many customers do not realise that production of E.I. Sandalwood oil involves several stages. The first distillation of pulverised wood or milled Sandalwood sawdust is soaked 48 hours and distilled 2-3 days oil if carried out at a pressure of 30-40 psig, to produce the crude oil. The first 2-5% of “sandalwood terpenes” are rejected, as it contains compounds like N-fufuryl pyrrole. This compound in extremely low concentrations smells like wheat popcorn, but in higher concentrations detracts from the sandalwood odour. The terpenes fraction also contains sesquiterpene hydrocarbons such as the a- and b-santalenes, which detract from the solubility of the oil in alcohol. The oil is then redistilled at 30-40 psig, again, often rejecting the first few fractions. Finally the resulting oil is rectified.

The relatively high energy input to produce a unit amount of Sandalwood product in the above process is ecologically unfortunate. Assessments of ecological impact for non-timber commodity production from forestry areas have to take energy efficiency into account (Burfield 2004), and the perfume designer Andrew Kobus (2003), argues that processes which involve the transport of fuel over long distances, for example, are not ideologically “organic” i.e. an essential oil produced in this manner should not be permitted to be classified as organic by the relevant certifying bodies. In any case, the necessity for vastly extended distillation times are often the result of poorly engineered process equipment. Further, at first glance it seems madness to use expensive carbon-based fuels or even wood/plant waste to produce process heat - as these contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide loading - when a clean technology like solar power could so easily be harnessed instead. We are told that the reason that this solution is not enacted immediately is, of course, one of lack of capital, but this must be balanced against the costs involved in the continual buying of fuel and the unaccounted and unseen costs of environmental damage.

Blending and other Sandalwood species. The aroma industry is presently so desperate for half-decent Sandalwood oil qualities, that it frequently and unknowingly accepts blends of other Sandalwood oils in with the East Indian oil. Fractions of S. spicatum (West Australian Sandalwood oil) or S. austrocaledonicum (New Caledonian Sandalwood oil) can frequently be employed for this task. The latter is often preferred by traders because the GC-MS trace of S. austrocaledonicum is quite similar to the trace for Santalum album.

The Pacific island group of Vanuatu has long been known as a source of Sandalwood, after the Irish explorer Peter Dillon discovered the island of Erromango was covered in sandalwood trees, but few mature trees now remain (see Vanuatu presently provides smaller quantities (believed to be 0.5 ton/annum) of S. austrocaledonicum crude oil for redistillation in Europe, and paper on the development of a strategy for the conservation of Sandalwood on Vanuatu has been made available by Chanel S. & Thompson L. (undated) at Additionally, Papua New Guinea is believed to also possess large resources of Sandalwood trees (S. macgregorii); S. insulare trees in French Polynesia have also been investigated as a source of Sandalwood oil supply. Cropwatch understands from insider sources, that immature trees of S. album in Australia, however, may not now be harvested for a further fifty years. Meanwhile in the past few years Indonesian Sandalwood oil from Santalum album has become increasingly rare, and a telling paragraph on the powerful forces controlling production in East Timor can be found at

Coleus oil.

The present issue of Parfumes, Cosmétiques, Actualitès  (Dec 2003) contains an article describing that a new patent (US Patent # 6,607,712) granted to the US Sabinsa Corporation, covering the supercritical CO2 extraction of essential oil of Coleus forskohlii. The patent is entitled “Composition and methods containing an anti-microbial essential oil from Coleus forskohlii” and describes methods to optimally produce anti-microbial oil compositions from indigenous species of Coleus forskohlii, which might be used against cutaneous infections (the oil is said to be active against Propionobacterium acnes) and in combating the growth of Streptococcus mutans, important in tooth decay.

You will note the use of the word “indigenous” above. Our information here is that Coleus forskohlii Briq. (syn. C. barbatus Benth.), a plant with edible roots, is in fact indigenous to India & Africa. In India at least, the plant is threatened, and Misra et al. (1994), refer to some precautions that authors took on their own initiative to attempt to preserve the species– a commendable act. We have written to Sabinsa to clarify the precise geographic source of their plants – although we acknowledge that it is, of course, perfectly possible to grow the species in greenhouses in the US.

We are hoping that this story does not prove to bear similarities to the Neem tree story (Azadirachta indica) (BBC 2000), a useful tree native to India. Here, you might remember, the European Court overturned a patent involving an anti-fungal product from the seeds of the Neem tree granted to the W.R. Grace company in 1994. This episode was seen by the Greens as a setback for those Corporates trying to exploit products from plants, more rightfully belonging to endemic and disadvantaged peoples of the world.  

However even if the patent remains unchallenged, for the essential oil to be used in the EU as a biocide, it will have to conform to the EU Biocides legislation, an introduction to which is given at As yet the status of Coleus forskohlii essential oil remains unidentified and un-notified, as far as we can tell, unless an application process for a new active substance is lodged, then it can’t be used in Europe…. unless of course, its intended uses are deemed to come under the remit of other appropriate legislation.

Global warming & species reduction.

In spite of the best efforts of green-focussed politicians towards policies ensuring carbon dioxide reduction (in moves such as the United Nations Framework on Climate Change) the effects of global warming continue to be revealed. In recent years, the trend towards more severe weather conditions (which accompanies the global warming phenomena) has been the most important single factor in the market availability for essential oils. 

Chris Thomas et al. (professor of conservation biology at Leeds University) paints a far more daunting picture, reporting on the results of a four continent-centred study in Nature (08.01.04). This suggests that a million species will disappear, and one third of all life forms will have their fate sealed by 2050, but that action now could save some threatened species. Those conservation measures taken to date, cannot realistically address the scope of problem – the only recourse is to severely reduce the causes of global warming.

To see the status ratification of the Kyoto Protocol for the country that you live in, check it out at, but remember the Kyoto Protocol is merely a start in the right direction for this problem. Even so, it is unfortunate that some major continents are not even on the bottom rung of ladder for this process, and the inaction of certain reticent politicians (the puppets of big business interests) are endangering the quality of life of all of us here on this planet.

In Brief...

A major US essential oils trading company appears to be visiting European aroma concerns this month offering peppermint oil products, which apparently incorporate GM technology or products. Many of us wondered how long it would be, before such products were openly traded in this manner, but we weren’t quite prepared for the fact that the salesmen representing this prestigious concern hadn’t quite done his homework, as to his surprise GM derived flavourings are actively discriminated against by most EU aroma trade raw materials buyers. Pity he had to fly here to find that out, when quite a useful summary to this circumstance is provided on the Internet at

Finally thanks to Chrissie Wildwood for alerting me to the British Herbal Medicine’s Association’s assertion that the problem of collection of herbs from the wild as herbal remedies threatening the viability of some species, is “exaggerated” (according to a BBC report). The story can be followed at It is understandable that such a professional association has to put the interests of its producing members foremost (some of whom might be trading the species in question). But their opinions need at the very least, to be able stand up in the public to rigorous examination in the light of known botanical data. How much better seems to be the attitude of the Botanical Medicinal Academy, who not only acknowledge the viability problem, but recommend investigation of the use of viable substitute plants for endangered or threatened species (Yarnell E. & Abascal K. 2001).  

The information supplied above is believed to be accurate, but views, comments, criticisms, corrections or additional material can be forwarded to for consideration in future communiqués in the Cropwatch series.


Anon (2002) “Squads to check Sandalwood Smuggling” The Hindu 14.05.04 at 14/stories/2002051403200400.htm

Burfield T. (2004) unpublished data.

Chanel S. & Thompson L. at

Earth Report (2002)

Kobus A. (2003) Personal communication

Misra L.N., Tyagi B.R., Ahmed A. & Bahl J.R. (1994) “Variability in the composition of C. forskohlii genotypes. J. of Essen Oil Res 6, 243-247.

Parfumes, Cosmétiques, Actualites  No. 174 Dec 2003 p47 “US Patent for Coleus oil granted to Sabinsa Corp.”

Sheppherd-Hanger S. (1995) The Aromatherapy Practitioners Reference Manual publ. Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy, Tampa, USA.

Yarnell E. & Abascal K. (2001) “Dilemmas of Traditional Botanical Research” Herbalgram 55, 46-54.