Latest Valensa News
Nov 23, 2020
Mike Baker, a longtime harvester and collector of palmetto berries, built his own collection facility in Indiantown, Florida.Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian Despite no clinical evidence, the oil is used to treat prostate issues in an international market estimated at $200m this year by Michael Adno Main image:Mike Baker, a longtime harvester and collector of palmetto berries, built his own collection facility in Indiantown, Florida.Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian Mon 23 Nov 2020 01.00 EST Last modified on Mon 23 Nov 2020 03.29 EST Mockingbirds announce the first signs of light as Elbin Sales Pérez disappears into a tightly knit maze of saw palmetto, a creeping, palm like shrub that blankets Florida . He’s searching for a berry nestled under the stalks of the spiky plant that grows wild in the American south. While the native plant is almost synonymous with the state’s landscape, few people know the plant bears fruit. Even fewer understand that those berries – the oil of which is used primarily to treat prostate issues, despite next to no clinical evidence of its efficacy – are at the center of an international botanical market estimated to exceed $200m this year. In the Florida flatwoods, Pérez finds himself alone in an unlikely setting for farmworkers, nothing like the manicured rows of tomatoes or citrus strewn throughout south-west Florida. In August and September, still months before the fall harvest, it’s rare to see farmworkers in Florida because there are almost no commercial crops to harvest. That’s precisely why the palmetto berry, colloquially known as “bolita” among farmworkers, has become an integral part of their ability to earn a living during a period when there is no other work. In Immokalee, Florida, many collectors of palmetto berries put up signs in Spanish for farmworkers that harvest the berries between August and October. Here, a sign reads ‘we buy berries’. Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian With a bit of intuition and luck, pickers can dwarf what they would earn in a week of picking citrus. “Sometimes you make $50 a day,” Pérez said. “Or sometimes you make $200.” In years when the berries are scarce like this year, prices soar, garnering $3 to $5 per pound. For the stream of cheap labor provided by mostly undocumented immigrants and those here on temporary visas, this crop carries a set of additional risks. Unlike the area’s more prominent crops that grow on farms, palmetto berries grow in flatwoods or prairies set deep in the heart of the state. Each bundle can serve as a home to wasps, a food source for black bears, and a haven to venomous snakes. “Where there’s more berries, there’s more snakes,” Pérez said. He recounted carrying more than a hundred pounds of berries slung across his back, when the thought of a rattlesnake or a cottonmouth more than an hour from medical treatment haunted him. “Nobody’s taking care of you,” he said, “You have to take care of yourself.” Elbin Sales Pérez, a seasonal farmworker and landscaper, picks palmetto berries when there is no other agricultural work. Despite the risks involved, it provides an essential part of his annual income. Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian Throughout the south-east, saw palmetto formed a central staple for many Indigenous tribes and punctuated the records of colonial explorers through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. But not until 1877 was saw palmetto introduced to the medical field. Two years later, it appeared in the American Journal of Pharmacy. Across America, it spread like wildfire to treat the common cold and later for prostate issues until the 1930s, when interest dimmed. During the same period, it became increasingly common in Europe, and sophisticated extraction methods developed there in the 1990s led to its resurgence in America with an explicit focus on prostate treatment. “Traditionally, it was a real quiet, little industry,” said Mike Baker, a longtime collector of palmetto berries who built out his own collection facility in Indiantown. There, ripe berries are dried then shipped overseas to Europe where the lion’s share of the market still resides. Three decades ago, Baker worked as a commercial shark angler, selling the fins to a distributor who ground the cartilage into a powder that some believed was an alternative cancer treatment. The shark fin industry ballooned as quickly as it was extinguished by stringent regulations Baker said. But when the distributor Baker worked with took note of saw palmetto’s demand in Europe during the 1990s, they pivoted. With capital from investors, the distributor built the Indiantown facility in 1995 and asked Baker to manage it. They collected, dried, and then ground the berries into a powder before sending them to a lab in Washington state where it was processed for Zala Pharmaceuticals. When that contract lapsed in 2001, Baker turned to harvesting himself. In 2015, he bought out the only collector left in Indiantown, which was a far cry from the dozen collectors scattered around Immokalee. He built out a new facility up the road on prime real estate, installed state certified scales to gain trust of local pickers, and as he said, “It blew up.” In good years like 2017 and 2019, Baker filled three to five semi-trucks per day of dried berries between August and October, collecting solely for North American Natural Resources Inc, a company that caters to the European market, where its use among consumers to treat lower urinary tract issues remains widespread. Left: an oak hammock filled with saw palmetto. In Florida, saw palmetto grows wild, blanketing the state’s flatwoods, prairies, among other landscapes. Right: Palmetto berries grow on the stalks of saw palmettos and turn from green to yellow and then a darker hue as they ripen. Photographs by Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian But despite exponential growth in demand over the last two decades, harvesters, collectors, and the manufacturers themselves have grown weary. The veil of silence endemic to the industry became more pronounced due to a fear of outsized regulation, environmental backlash, and how gossamer the business model has become. That’s in large part due to how the harvesters are beholden to large landowners as well as the manufacturers who have taken steps to harvest the crop themselves. But even more volatile, the entire industry is subject to the weather of the sub-tropics that determine whether a year’s harvest is feast or famine. As Baker said. “God controls all that.” *** In the past decade, calls from conservationists to curb the harvest grew from rumbles into a roar, namely because of the role berries play as a food source for black bears. The fear of disruption posed by new regulation haunted those in the industry, and once the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission discontinued the harvest of palmetto berries on FWC managed lands more than a decade ago, everyone involved only grew more tight-lipped. In 2015, the Florida Forest Service followed suit. And then in July 2018, to curb the illicit poaching of berries on private property and state lands, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began requiring a letter of permission from landowners that allowed the harvest of what they deemed a “commercially exploited plant”. That same year in the wake of the permitting process and a slew of hurricanes that wiped south Florida’s berries off the stalk, crews moved west into the Florida panhandle and north into Georgia to meet the demand. What followed was unprecedented. Palmetto berries. Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian Law enforcement arrested and cited pickers without permits, often those who misunderstood the process entirely, and soon the price for a pound of berries reached $5. In 2018, one collector in St Lucie county was stuck up for $15,000 . In Brevard county that same year, a collector from Immokalee was murdered in his trailer , possibly for the money he had on hand. It begged the question of whether the regulations achieved its intended effect to deter poaching or instead led to a spike in crime spurred by the high cost of berries. This year, Georgia announced similar permitting procedures. “It’s difficult to get the permit,” Pérez said, and in turn, it’s forced farmworkers who misunderstand the permitting process or fear it due to their immigration status to risk not only snakebite but also fines, arrest, and ultimately deportation. Despite the risks, farmworkers interviewed for this story that asked to remain anonymous said they would continue to harvest the berries with or without a permit. ** Globally, the annual market for saw palmetto averages an estimated $130 to $150m , with Europe buying 60% of the harvest according to Valensa International, a manufacturer based in Florida. And while most products cater to men experiencing symptoms related to an enlarged prostrate, new applications to combat hair loss geared towards women account for an estimated additional $40m . By creating their own collection facility in north Florida far from the established centers in Immokalee and cultivating relationships with landowners, Valensa doubled their estimated volumes while the American market saw only modest growth. “I think that comes when your brand is selling a high-quality product,” said Umasudhan Pal, Valensa’s president and CEO. Since 1999 when Valensa built its facility in Eustis, Florida, it staked claim to a focus on “clinical evidence and quality”, said Larry McCarty, Valensa’s vice-president of global manufacturing and supply chain. The facade of Valensa international’s headquarters, a manufacturer of palmetto berry extract based in Eustis, Florida. Photograph: Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian “In the US,” McCarty said, “It’s all about regulating for safety. They don’t care about efficacy. That’s unfortunate, because it’s a buyer beware circumstance.” That friction has been the animating force for Valensa. Both Pal and McCarty believed the market is flooded with what amounts to “fake saw palmetto”. They explained how the fatty acids in palmetto berries are often cut with vegetable and animal oils in some of the leading palmetto extracts in the market. Valensa even offers consumers and competing brands free analysis of their products in the hopes of revealing just how shady some products can be. “It’s the high road and a hard road,” McCarty said, “But that’s what we’re about.” As a corollary, Valensa paid careful attention to botanicals like turmeric and saffron to develop proper protocols for its harvest, collection, and extraction methods, but as Pal warned, “It comes at a price.” “The way the prices have gone up in the last ten years, if you ask me,” he said, “Where we are now is more sustainable.” Nonetheless, the clinical evidence that many manufacturers, including Valensa, pointed to was cast in doubt, leaving the consumer to discern whether they were purchasing an effective treatment or just another myth. Left: Lovelie Metzgar (left), Valensa International’s quality assurance specialist, and Larry McCarty, vice-president of global manufacturing and supply chain inside the company’s processing plant in Eustis, Florida. Right: Ripe palmetto berries are first collected then dried before their oil is extracted for consumption at Valensa International. Photographs by Rose Marie Cromwell/The Guardian *** In 2019, the American Botanical Council estimated that retail sales in the entire dietary supplement marketplace exceeded $9.6bn , increasing two-fold since 2000. While the Food and Drug Administration oversees the regulation of supplements, they’re treated more like a category of food, and so the limitations of what appears in the marketplace are nearly limitless. “In Europe, these things are regulated more like drugs,” said Dr Craig Hopp, the deputy director of the division of extramural research at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health. In Europe, the European Medicine Agency gave approval to a single saw palmetto extract – a French product called Permixon – deeming it both safe for consumption and effective in treating prostate symptoms. As to whether there’s any comparable product in America, Dr Hopp said, “No would be the short answer.” In 2010, the NCCIH funded a double-blind study of saw palmetto to treat prostrate issues, giving one group of patients 160mg dose daily and the other group a placebo. They found no benefit, but after pushback due to the low dosage, they funded another study in 2013, this time giving one group 960mg per day and the other a placebo. Again, there was no benefit, and actually, the placebo proved more effective. When asked whether the development of more sophisticated extraction methods would sway opinion, Dr Hopp said he understood the premise but, “Better extraction methods of an inactive substance does not make a better substance.” “Not to put too fine a point on it, but we have not found any that have been effective as they’re marketed,” Dr Hopp said of the broader marketplace. Those studies spanned Echinacea, Cranberry, Elderberry, St John Wort, and Ginkgo Biloba among others. “In none of them have we found a substantial benefit above and beyond the placebo.” Even in the face of rigorously designed trials that revealed their inefficacy, people continue to utilize dietary supplements widely in the United States. Sales dry up temporarily in the wake of studies that show no benefit but quickly rebound as the studies grow distant. This year in Florida, the harvest drew to a close marred by drought and then by a few storms that pushed harvesting crews again into new territory—alluding to the effect climate change might have on this industry. But as summer returns next year, white flowers will bloom, followed by the berries, and again, this intricate dance will continue. For now, palmetto berries are just one among many exports leaving the state uninterrupted.