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Holy Smoke! Incense Shortage Looms

By Mark Michael

Global supplies of frankincense are plummeting due to climate change and shifting patterns of land usage, according to a study published July 1 in the journal Nature SustainabilityFrankincense, a resin produced by tree and shrubs of the Boswellia genus and harvested by hand for millennia, is the primary ingredient in church incense.  Boswellia grows in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and India, and in all regions the plant population has been severely affected by drought, a shift toward cattle farming, and conflict.

The study found evidence of a “population collapse” within the 23 distinct populations surveyed, noting that “natural regeneration has been absent for decades.”  The study authors predict a 50 percent decline in frankincense production over the next 20 years if significant steps are not taken to reverse the current trends.

Frankincense is blended with myrrh, cassia and other aromatic oils to produce church incense, a craft that has been especially associated with monastic communities.  Mucknall Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community in Worcestershire in the British Midlands, has been producing incense since 2004.  The supervisor of the work, Sister Sally, recently told Anglican Communion News Service that they have only been able to obtain frankincense “siftings” this year, instead of the pea-sized granules prized for high-quality incense.

Incense production is a significant industry. As a symbol of ascending prayers, it has been an important element of solemn Christian worship since the early days of the church, and is also used in ceremonies of other religions.  The Roman Catholic Church alone is estimated to use 50 tons of incense per year, and it is an enduring distinctive of Anglo-Catholic worship.  (Andrew Petiprin discussed the use of incense through the ages in “Churches Need Incense” on TLC’s Covenant blog.)

The Nature Sustainability study urges swift action, holding out hope of trend reversal.  “Populations can be restored by establishing cattle enclosures and fire-breaks, and by planting trees and tapping trees more carefully,” the study says.  “Concerted conservation and restoration efforts are urgently needed.”


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