Why frankincense and myrrh are so expensive

  • Frankincense and myrrh have been prized across the world for over 6,000 year.

  • The Roman Catholic Church uses an estimated 50 metric tons of frankincense a year.
  • Frankincense essential oil can be sold for as much as $6,000 per liter.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Frankincense and myrrh are perhaps best known for their biblical connotations. But this tree sap has been prized across the world for over 6,000 years. These fragrant incense pieces come from the Burseraceae family of trees and are found across the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But despite recent attempts to protect these trees, they could soon be headed for extinction.

So, what makes frankincense and myrrh so expensive?

There are roughly 550 species of Burseraceae, a collection of trees often referred to as the incense tree family, recognizable for their flaking aromatic bark and fragrant sap. But true frankincense comes from only a small fraction of those species.

Muez Hailu, Director of Forest Development: "In Ethiopia, there are six species of gum and resin trees. One of those species is called Boswellia papyrifera. That's its scientific name. It is highly demanded in the international market."

Narrator: Frankincense is a milky white resin derived from Boswellia trees, which are remarkable for their ability to grow in unforgiving conditions. In fact, these trees have been known to grow out of solid rock. Myrrh, on the other hand, is a reddish resin extracted from Commiphora trees. The process of extracting sap from Boswellia and Commiphora trees is virtually identical. Incisions, or taps, are made in the bark of the tree, which create injury. The trees produce a gummy resin, like a scab, as a protection against the injury. The resin then hardens into teardrop pieces. More incisions are made at important intervals to continue the production of resin exudates.

Melles Gebru, Tapper at Baeker Site: "First, we tap here. We call this a target. This one is already wounded. After 15 days, the exudates will be ready to detach. This is called "KNFRIT". After 15 days, with the same process we detach it again. This is called "SALSYEN". At the same time, we also collect some gum resins out of it. After another 15 days, which is called "RABE'YEN," we collect some more. We do the same process continuously every 15 days."

Narrator: The resin granules collected from the trees must be separated into different grades. First grade-A frankincense is clear, white, and without impurities. Smaller pieces of the same high-quality granules are separated within a sieve and classified as first grade-B frankincense. The grades gradually deteriorate based on the size and the amount of impurities, such as bark infused into the resin. Low-quality frankincense is mainly sold for local market consumption, whereas grades one, two, three, and four are exported.

Zereu Aregehegn, Guna Trading PLC: "This one is called first grade A, and it is more expensive. We have put it in line based on their quality and grade standard here, and this one is expensive. Here we buy the unprocessed around 15,800 birr without VAT."

Narrator: That means that at wholesale, this sack of first grade-A Ethiopian frankincense is worth about $430. Frankincense and myrrh have been burnt as incense for thousands of years, and both are deeply ingrained in religious ceremonial burnings. In fact, it's estimated that the Roman Catholic Church alone still uses an estimated 50 metric tons of frankincense a year.

Frankincense and myrrh were some of the most highly prized commodities in ancient civilizations and became the driving force behind the creation of the incense trade routes, a vast network of major land and sea passageways dating back to 300 BC that linked the Mediterranean to luxury goods from the south. At the height of their use, these routes allowed the transport of approximately 3,000 tons of incense every year, hauled by camels.

Today, alongside its medicinal and cosmetic uses, frankincense has found a surge in popularity as an essential oil, which in its purest form can be sold for as much as $6,000 per liter. Frankincense essential oil alone generated more than $190 million in 2018, and that's expected to exceed $406 million by 2028.

But with so much money to be made from damaging a tree, the tapping process, which should happen only two or three times a year, is under threat not only from environmental dangers such as wildfires, but also from local untrained tappers. It can sometimes take decades for these trees to start producing resin, so the sustainability of the species relies on injuring the tree without killing it.

Kindeya Gebrehiwot: Unfortunately, the harvesting process of frankincense is very damaging to the tree. So, every time people go there and make wounds and then collect the sap, that doesn't give enough time to rest for the tree and heal itself. So, one of our findings is this tree is really under a threat.

Narrator: The International Union for Conservation of Nature categorized the Boswellia sacra species as near threatened over 20 years ago, and the lack of overharvesting laws in some countries means that protecting Boswellia trees in such remote areas is virtually impossible. Experts who surveyed aging Boswellia papyrifera trees in North Africa suggested that most hadn't produced a young tree in half a century.

Muez Hailu, Director of forest development: "If we use inappropriate tapping methods, the tree can be destroyed and will vanish in five to 10 years. This tree is irreplaceable. So far we have not been successful in reproducing it through cutting and planting seedlings of the tree. We have to be careful about the tapping and management of this natural resource. We have benefited from the production of frankincense for centuries in this region. However, in some areas, it is now extinct."

 

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