Herbal Medicine, as an industry, can be unsustainable and many times unethical. Numerous people consume or harvest plant material for their benefits without any further reflection on how these actions may affect plant population or other humans that have relied on these plants for medicine, culture and/or food for centuries. Medicinal plants are consumed at an unsustainable rate in relation to their growth and, for that reason, an ecological debt is created. As sad as it is, a great majority of people consume herbs or herbal products with the intention of promoting their health while doing good for the Earth. The intention of healing exists, but the knowledge on how to achieve it in a sustainable way is not accessible or shared to the public. Products like essential oils, which demand for pounds and pounds of herbs, are bought and even thrown out without any regard on the quantity of resources in them. Some herbs, such as adaptogens which are usually roots, have become trendy and this results in massive and unethical harvesting practices alongside ecological and financial gaps that limit the access of indigenous people to these herbs. Plants like white sage, which is used in reverence, are now critically endangered as species. Our consumption lies upon a sinking ground of ignorance, planting nothing and taking endlessly.
There is a huge disconnection in the knowledge and appreciation of a plant - it's growth cycle, who traditionally relies on it, and its ecological role, among other aspects. In the end, what is of most value, is to be able to use these herbs for generations hereinafter. Below are some tips on how to choose herbs and become a conscious consumer that chooses to respect indigenous cultures and sustainable practices.
Going Back to Our Roots - Local is Best
The real answer is supporting local growers/herbalists and/or to grow oneself - this is the MOST important piece. This post was inspired in the sheer lack of sustainable practices, local organic growers, and accessibility to information on the subject worldwide. This is the sustainability gap referred to in this post, it represents a tangible problem every day more urgent to attend. If consumption outweighs production, prices continuously increase and it becomes a privilege, inaccessible to lower income classes. In terms of food and medicine security, what happens if herbs cease to be imported? If each consumer can grow one single herb in a decent amount, which doesn’t require a lot of space, this herb can be used as trade with the local community. For example, with two turmeric plants, apart from obtaining the medicine needed, 100 starts can be generated in less than 4 months. Plants are abundant and can produce great amounts of material in a small space, thus quality doesn’t mean exactly high prices. For herbal consumers who love plants, developing a relationship with each of the plants grown is a special and transcendental experience.
UNETHICAL HARVESTING METHODS
Trained herbalists have the knowledge of a plant's reproduction cycle, it's growth rate and how much yield you can get from it in a season, all of which either add or subtract from the value of the plant material we get. This “value” is different from the market value, although they can correlate at times. For example, an endangered root medicine like echinacea, is more sparingly than a high yielding leaf medicine, although they may be sold at the same price at the store. Those with access to education and conscious care in this subject give more value to plant material that demands more time, materials and/or space. How long that plant has been alive, and its current population status, should also be taken into consideration. This same knowledge should be passed to a consumer when buying plants.
Unethical harvesting methods include wild harvesting endangered plant species or harvesting in ways that damage the plant reproduction cycle and plant populations. If an endangered plant species must be used for a specific case, and there is no substitute for it, supporting a locally grown one over an imported wild harvested one is the best solution.
THINGS YOU NEED TO ASK AND KNOW WHEN PURCHASING HERBAL HEALTH PRODUCTS:
Do I need to consume this specific plant?
Is this species endangered or at risk?
Was this plant grown or wild harvested?
How was this plant harvested?
What part of the plant is it?
Where was it grown and processed?
How abundant is this plant and how long is its life cycle?
How far did this herb had to travel to come to my hands?
Do all the hands involved in this purchase get a living wage?
Is my consumption increasing prices or decreasing the indigenous communities’ access to it?
If you do need to import or buy herbs that are imported, then other considerations need to be taken into account. Many professional herbalists, holistic stores and herbal distributors must ship certain herbs from other areas of the world when obtaining specialty herbs, with this, fair trade and/or ethical practices happen to be compromised. When herbs are shipped, the price is for the importation, the travel, and the cost of the herbs. In this case, usually, fair wages and sustainable practices are not being supported unless a premium price is paid. This means that normal prices on the shelves are sometimes indicators of unhealthy practices in one or more stages of the production chain.
Another consideration is the ecological impact that importing has on the world's carbon footprint. Things to look for as a consumer when buying imported herbal products is fair-trade and looking into a company's harvesting methods. A herbalist using traditional knowledge, in the best scenario, would cultivate locally the herbs needed and give back to indigenous populations that lived on the land being used or that have historically used the plant and developed the knowledge about it that is being used today.
IMPORTING, ECOLOGICAL DEBTS & INDIGENOUSE CONSIDERATIONS
Unless you are growing your own herbs an ecological debt is created in the system, which is accounted for with a financial exchange, the price of the herbs. When any good is imported, it drives up the local prices thus making them less accessible to the people who traditionally relied on them. This has happened with crops like quinoa, avocados, cocoa and maca which are all now less accessible to their local economy and the indigenous peoples who used these medicines freely. Other indigenous considerations are that herbal medicine is a traditional knowledge, and many wisdom keepers are those from indigenous populations. When herbs that belong to these peoples’ culture and tradition are used, knowing that their knowledge is being supported and respected by whatever means they desire must be assured.
This is intended to help consumers when purchasing herbal products, supporting companies and businesses that are responsibly producing herbal products and hopefully inspiring you to start growing one herb and/or to connect with herbs a little bit more.
Asia Mann, E-RYT-200hr, Clinical Herbalist, Holistic Birth Doula & Intuitive Healer