Hoodia fever takes a toll on rare plant

Times Staff Writer

When fully grown, the plant resembles something from "The Day of the Triffids" or some other science-fiction creation: a squat succulent with thick, spiky arms, purple fleshy petals and seedpods like rhino horns.

Hoodia gordonii is no beauty, but this humble plant is Africa's latest cash crop, priced almost like a narcotic at $40 an ounce. The plant, which grows wild in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, was once used by indigenous tribes to suppress hunger and thirst when hunting. Now it's such a darling of the international dieting industry that Googling "hoodia" calls up about 12 million responses.

The demand is so hot that wild supplies have been severely compromised and smuggling is rife, and farmers in southern Africa are trying to get in on the game.

"You start doing the sums: It's too good to be true. You want to throw your calculator away. It's an impossible phenomenon," hoodia farmer Dougal Bassingthwaighte said.

With international giant Unilever licensed to commercialize hoodia and international demand far outstripping supply, there's a mad race on to get plants to the market.

Bassingthwaighte, 65, who is farming hoodia with his son, Kirk, has 130,000 seedlings being planted out from his nursery, where they begin as tiny green sprouts, to his fields. In about two years, when he plans to harvest them, each is likely to weigh about 4 pounds. He hopes to have a million plants next year.

But the explosion of interest has not only put enormous pressure on the rare plant -- listed as an endangered species by international treaty -- it also puts intense pressure on an embryonic market that could be a boon for Africans if it could grow at a natural and sustainable pace.

The craze for hoodia seems to bring out the worst in people. Tiny as it is, the industry is rife with fierce, competitive secrecy, quack products and illegal harvesting. Next, authorities in crime-ridden South Africa fear, comes the inevitable interest of organized gangsters.

Whether hoodia works as a diet aid has not been scientifically proved. Pills and capsules claiming to contain hoodia are widely available in the United States online and at stores that sell herbal supplements. Such products are largely exempt from the U.S. government regulations that require drugs to be tested for safety and effectiveness before being sold.

But Bassingthwaighte says he has no doubt.

"I grew up with it. I actually ate it as a kid. I know the stuff works," he said. As a farm boy he often walked or rode in the heat to other farms. "And people said, 'Eat this. It will take away your hunger and thirst.' And it did."

Back then, it never occurred to anyone to farm the plant.

Three types contain the active ingredient P57: Hoodia gordonii, the most common, which has a bitter taste; the similar-looking Hoodia currorii; and Hoodia officinalis, a smaller and rarer plant, preferred by indigenous Namibian tribes because it's sweeter. Bassingthwaighte sees the last as having potential as a salad vegetable.

South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research identified P57 and patented it in 1996, later licensing British firm Phytopharm to develop and commercialize it. The council argues that anyone who sells hoodia as a weight-reduction product outside that license would infringe on the patent.

In 1998, Pfizer signed a deal to develop the product but withdrew in 2003; a year later, Unilever entered a licensing deal with Phytopharm. Under pressure from lawyers representing members of the San tribe of southern Africa, Phytopharm later signed a royalty deal with them.

South Africa is the only African country exporting hoodia legally. Paul Gildenhuys of the Western Cape Conservation Authority said the amount of hoodia exported to Europe and the United States under permit from that province more than doubled in the last year from 22 tons to 49, raising suspicions that significant smuggling was going on. He said there were reports of hoodia flowing through Western Cape province from other parts of South Africa or other countries.

"The problem with the industry is that people are all trying to get their part of the cake," he said. "They actually try to guard their information jealously. And a lot of people try to run each other down. They will say, 'Don't buy anything from Mr. X because he's a smuggler. Buy from me.' But there's nothing to prove that it's true."

To the northwest, in Namibia, the growing demand has led to widespread smuggling that has endangered wild plants.

"This smuggling is a huge concern because it's undermining the whole industry," Bassingthwaighte said. "They were coming across and smuggling hoodia before we woke up to it. When our local indigenous people realized this thing was of value, they started ripping the plants up in the wild."

Some in Namibia hope that if the market is brought under control, the hoodia craze could benefit the country's poor. Others fear that commercial farmers and giants such as Unilever could clean up while poor communities are paid a pittance for manual labor on hoodia farms.

"We do see it as a very real opportunity to give a source of income to some of the poorest people in Namibia," said Steve Carr, coordinator of a succulent cultivation project being carried out by Namibia's National Botanical Research Institute, which is part of a working group helping indigenous people farm hoodia.

"It's an irony. It could be a way for people who feel they are overweight to help people who face a daily struggle to put something in their stomachs."

But he said the market was being damaged by the many products on the U.S. market that were not pure hoodia.

"We're concerned that the initiative to provide an income to some of the poorest, marginalized groups could be undermined before it even gets off the ground," Carr said.

Carr believes the high prices in the market are unsustainable and may come down as the market develops.

"We don't have an inherent concern about high prices. What we're concerned about is high prices being driven by people who are operating illegally and who don't give a damn for conservation of the plant," he said. "We do think there's a bubble and that the price will drop and that people who show they have a high-quality product will get a long-term benefit."

Bassingthwaighte set up the Hoodia Growers Assn. of Namibia to protect farmers' interests and get other farmers on board to try to meet public demand with a quality product before the hoodia craze evaporates.

Hoodia seeds germinate easily, but the plants are difficult to keep alive organically with no pesticides or sprays.

"No one can tell you why one grows beautifully and the other one doesn't," Bassingthwaighte's wife, Bobbie, said as the family inspected seedlings. "It's like human beings."

"It's very difficult to grow, period," Dougal Bassingthwaighte said. "Bacteria is a problem, fungus is a problem. It seems vulnerable to all kinds of baboons, ground mice and lizards which eat it."

The seeds explode from their pods in a puff of delicate fluff. Small socks are placed over the hornlike pods to capture the seeds, giving the plants an even more bizarre appearance, as if a colony of elves had hung out their stockings to dry. The socks are later emptied and each seed handpicked from the fluff.

Bassingthwaighte hopes to get an export license and believes he will be able to sell about 4,800 pounds of dried hoodia powder a year. So far, his operation is small. But gazing tenderly over his tiny seedlings, he dreams of a day when hoodia plants stretch in every direction toward the horizon, tilting their horns at the bright Kalahari sky.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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