Herbal Medicine, as an industry, is unsustainable and many times unethical. Many people consume or harvest plant material because of their effects without any thought into how their actions may be affecting the plant population or even other humans that have relied on those plants for medicine, ceremony and/or food for centuries. We consume at a rate higher then that of growth and for that reason we unknowingly create an ecological debt in the system. And, as sad as it is, most people consume herbs or herbal products because they want to do something good for the Earth and their health. The intention of healing is there, but the conscious knowledge of how to actually achieve it is not. Things like essential oils, which ask for pounds and pounds of herbs are bought and even thrown out without any regard of how much plant material has gone into them. Some herbs such as adaptogens, which are usually roots, become trendy and this results in mass over harvesting, unethical harvesting practices alongside ecological and financial gaps that limit the access of these herbs from indigenous people. Herbs like white sage, which were used in reverence, are now very endangered as a species. Our consumption lies upon a sinking ground of ignorance which plants nothing and takes endlessly. Like children demanding to be fed from empty plates we naively assume that there is enough to feed us all, but there isn't enough being planted.
There is a huge disconnect in the appreciation of a plant - it's growth cycle, and who traditionally relies on it, and that of our consumption, because we do not grow these plants ourselves most of the time. It's cultural appropriation at it's finest and something we as consumers must change or else we won't have a sustainable industry. In the end, we all want the same thing, to be able to use these herbs for the rest of our lives and for generations after. Here are some tips on how and why to choose your herbs so you can be a conscious consumer that chooses to respect indigenous people and sustainable practices.
Going Back to Our Roots - Local is Best
The real answer is we need to support local growers/herbalists and/or grow ourselves - this is the MOST important piece. I was inspired to write this piece because of the sheer lack of local growers and farmers out there that are local to B.C..This is the sustainability gap I am talking about - its a real problem. If our consumers outweigh our growers then prices continually increase and food becomes inaccessible to lower income classes. Think of food security and medicine security, what happens if the exported food stops coming in for a few weeks? If we can all grow one single herb in a decent amount, which you don't need alot of space for, you can then use that herb and trade with your local community. Right now from two turmeric plants that I just harvested I have received over 100 starts in less then 6 months. Plants are really abundant and can produce a ton from a little space and you don't have to pay a premium price point for high quality, it just takes time. If you are already a herbal consumer and love plants you will probably love developing a relationship with each of the plants you grow which is a really special 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 a season all of which either add or take away value from the plant material we get. This "value" is different then the market value, although they can correlate at times. For example, I would use an endangered root medicine, like echinacea, more sparingly then a high yielding leaf medicine although they may be sold at the same price at the store. Those with education and conscious care, give more value to plant material that asks for more time, more materials, more space and/or the life of the plant. They should also take into consideration how long that plant has been alive and its current population status. 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 plant reproduction and plant populations. If I really need to use an endangered plant species and have no substitute for the need I will support a local, grown crop supply over an imported wild harvested supply.
THINGS YOU NEED TO ASK AND KNOW WHEN PURCHASING HERBAL HEALTH PRODUCTS:
Is my consumption necessary?
Is this species endangered or at risk?
Was this plant grown or wild harvested?
Where was it grown and processed?
What part of the plant is it?
How abundantly does this plant grow and how long is it's life cycle?
How was this plant harvested?
How far did this herb have to travel to come into my hands?
Do all the hands who have touched this herb get a living wage?
Is my consumption increasing prices or decreasing accessibility within indigenous communities?
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 have to ship certain herbs from other areas of the world when obtaining specialty herbs and many times fair trade and/or ethical practices may not be an option. When we ship herbs we are paying for the exportation, the travel and the cost of the herbs. We usually do not support fair wages for all the hands involved and sustainable practices unless we pay a premium price. This means that people can be supporting unethical human wage exchange and unsustainable plant harvesting practices when purchasing these plants on shelves for their normal prices. Another exportation consideration is the ecological footprint that exporting has on the world's carbon footprint. Things you can look for as a consumer when exporting is fair-trade and looking into a company's harvesting methods when buying exported goods. In my opinion, as both a herbalist and someone who uses traditional knowledge, the best would be if they themselves are cultivating these herbs on their own land and giving back to indigenous populations that used to live on that land or who use that plant in their traditional culture.
EXPORTING, 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 exported, it then drives up the local prices of these herbs thus making them less accessible to the people who traditionally relied on them. This happened with things like quinoa, avocados, chocolate and maca which are all now less accessible to their local economy and the indigenous peoples who used these medicines freely. Other indigenous considerations I would like to note is that herbal medicine is a traditional knowledge and many wisdom keepers are those from indigenous populations. When we use herbs that belong to these people and their culture we need to use them intently and know that their knowledge is being supported and respected by whatever means they desire, which can look differently with each herb or product.
I hope this helps when purchasing herbal products to help support companies and businesses that are doing good in the world and maybe inspires you to start growing one herb to connect with a little bit more.
Asia Mann, E-RYT-200hr, Clinical Herbalist, Holistic Birth Doula & Intuitive Healer