This excerpt adapted from The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry by Ann Armbrecht.
Used with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing. Available in print, ebook and audiobook wherever books are sold.
I have never liked shopping of any kind, but especially not shopping for food. As I walk down an aisle and put a can of beans into my cart, I imagine farmworkers and factory workers tumbling in as well, pulled by invisible threads attached to my hand. It is worse in the supplement aisle, even the supplement aisle of my local food cooperative. I stare at shelves lined with brown glass bottles and white plastic containers. Most, though not all, bear an image of the plant, a flower or leaf. While some list only the plant name, many also claim to be the best quality, the most sustainable, the most fair. I wonder which product will live up to its promises. I worry about the people and places behind those products. By putting this box of tea instead of that one into my cart, am I actually keeping pesticides out of the water? Am I really helping a wild harvester earn a fair wage? Or is it all simply trick mirrors of feel-good marketing, letting me pat myself on the back for being an enlightened consumer?
Do my choices, in fact, change nothing?
Perhaps the best thing is to choose nothing, to simply walk away. But I recall what nature writer Barry Lopez said when describing Pacific Northwest landscapes destroyed by clear-cut logging in the mid-1990s. Unless our hands were doing something to stop that logging, Lopez said, we were part of that destruction. Inaction, in other words, is also action.
The global dietary supplement industry has grown significantly over the last few decades, reaching a little over $143 billion in annual sales in 2019, increasing 5.7% from 2018. Despite the fact that many turn to herbal medicine believing it to be the more environmentally responsible choice, conversations in the herbal products industry about the crucial connections among quality, traceability, and sustainable and ethical sourcing are still in the early stages compared with changes that have already been initiated in the food industry. Because of the way the herbal supplements industry has developed, it is very difficult to find accurate information about the numerous supply chains or about the human and environmental costs of producing a specific product. Companies increasingly claim to be ethical and sustainable. Yet for the most part, consumers are asked to trust those claims even though companies reveal little information about how their sourcing decisions and manufacturing processes affect the people and environments involved in and impacted by that production.
I began studying herbal medicine in the late 1990s, shortly after returning to the United States from an eighteen-month sojourn conducting ethnographic research on the connections between people and the land in Hedangna, a village in northeastern Nepal. Even though I was back at home, I felt “homesick” for Nepal. I missed the simplicity of living in a remote village, life pared down to the essentials. Like many returning from living overseas, I felt a profound sense of culture shock on returning to a culture and society so driven by consumption. In herbal medicine I found something that filled my yearning for the way of being I had discovered in Hedangna—a sense of reciprocity with the natural world, an understanding of the earth as something more than a resource to exploit, a recognition of the spiritual and cultural dimensions of healing. I signed up for an apprenticeship with Rosemary Gladstar, the “godmother” of the American herbal medicine renaissance, and immersed myself in the study of what felt like the indigenous knowledge of my home.
Yet as I learned more, I realized that the primary places in which medicinal plants entered mainstream American culture were the supplement aisle and the herbal tea section (and today, thousands of internet sites). To most people, herbal medicine was a product to consume, not a set of practices to follow. This commercialization seemed to threaten the heart of herbal medicine, and I wanted to bring the values and practices behind the products into the public eye. And so my husband, Terry Youk, a filmmaker, and I co-produced a documentary celebrating the philosophy of traditional Western herbalism. We called the film Numen, a Latin term that means “the animating force in all things living.” To us, this concept expresses what is most important about herbal medicine in any tradition—that it is a way to encounter the mystery of nature, an encounter that is healing not just for ourselves, but for the world.
We began screening the film across the country in 2010, and the audience response was striking. Viewers either immediately understood the film’s message about the healing power of plants, or they didn’t. They either were open to the idea that they could make herbal medicines themselves, or were not. It was a time when many people were beginning to question everything about how food was grown and processed, but far fewer were asking those questions about the medicines they ingested. Parents who would not feed their children anything other than organic food had never questioned the wisdom of giving them Tylenol or Advil, or considered how those medicines were made and with what ingredients. And although they shopped at local farmers markets, those conscientious parents never asked whether “medicine” could be found there as well. Medicine was what you bought at a drug store, not something you could learn to prepare in your own kitchen with plants you had grown yourself, the way I had been taught to do by Rosemary Gladstar. During the screening tour of Numen, I came to realize that one small documentary film was not going to change that consciousness on the broader scale. In order to reach people who couldn’t conceive of medicine as something other than a pill or powder, I needed to meet them on their ground—in the supplement aisle.
Most herbalists believe that the efficacy of herbal medicine depends on more than the chemical constituents in the plants. Whether and how plant medicine works also depends on what herbalists refer to as the spirit of the plant and the relationship of a healer to that spirit. Intention matters, too—the intention felt by those who grow, harvest, and process herbs; the intention of the people who make the medicine from those herbs; even the intention of the person who ingests or applies the medicine. Many of these herbalists expressed ambivalence about the commercialization of herbal products, yet they still recommended those products to their clients. They often got around this seeming contradiction by recommending specific companies to buy from, implying that these companies brought intention to their products. Still, as I learned more, I saw it was almost impossible for a company to bring that quality of intention and attention to each step of the process when producing products on a larger scale.
Moreover, much of that production was invisible to the end user. During herb classes, my teachers talked about the uses of chamomile or nettles or echinacea, but they didn’t mention any potential differences in the effectiveness of herbs as medicine based on where plants had been sourced and how they had been cared for along the supply chain. Yet, I wondered, in what ways were certified organic nettles grown on a thirty-acre farm in Vermont different from those wild-harvested in places such as Bulgaria or Romania, where the collectors are paid pennies for their labor? Would it change the quality of the medicine if those harvesters were paid a more equitable rate for their work or I could be assured that the plants had been sustainably harvested? And how would you even measure these differences?
At the Watershed Gathering in 1996, writer and farmer Wendell Berry said, “As a nation we are struggling with a profound lack of imagination. We don’t see the forests being cut down to build our homes, the lakes being drained as we fill our tub. We live on the far side of a broken connection.” Not seeing the people and places on the other side, not seeing the moral and ecological consequences of producing these products, he continued, makes it easier to consume them. “Healing this broken connection,” Berry concluded, “begins with seeing beyond what the market wants us to see.” This begins with an act of imagination.
Inspired by Wendell Berry and haunted by my shopping experiences, I decided to follow medicinal plants through the supply chain, from the woods and fields where they grew to the facilities and warehouses where they were processed and stored to the factories where they were heated, treated, and packaged. I wanted to tell the stories of the people and places that feed the supply chain, especially those on the far end from the supplement aisle. I wanted to see whether I could find intention in a global supply chain (which I later learned is really more of a network than a linear chain) and, if so, what I might discover in the process. And I wanted to understand how knowing the stories of the people involved in growing, harvesting, and producing these products and those working to source herbs responsibly might make a difference.
Like most commodities, plants are complex entities that have different meanings and values, especially to different stakeholders. They can be a source of healing or of profit, an item of trade, or a foundation for biodiversity. Yet unlike most commodities bought and sold in an international market, plants are alive. They are not simply inert objects to use as we please but rather have adapted to grow in particular habitats and are used in specific ways in systems of medicine around the world. They are embedded in cultural and ecological frameworks of meaning that include guidelines about how to harvest plant parts and prepare medicines from them in ways that respect the plants and their ecosystems. Can connecting these plants with these cultural and ecological worlds, with the people and places that came tumbling into my grocery store cart, lay the foundation for building structures of reciprocity rather than of exploitation?
“We can’t be well until the planet is well,” Bioneers co-founder Kenny Ausubel told us when we interviewed him for Numen. In other words, herbal supplements can promote wellness and health only if the systems that produce those supplements promote health and wellness for all of the stakeholders involved. That depends, as Wendell Berry says, on reconnecting the end product with the people and places behind the production. Yet, is that even possible in an economic system based on that disconnection?
My work at the Sustainable Herbs Program asks and tries to answer whether it is possible to live in right relationship with the earth within a global industry? Can plants be both living entities with which humans can have a sacred relationship and commodities governed by the laws of capital? If that is possible, what are the conditions that allow for right relationship within a commercial enterprise?
I explore these questions in different ways, through the videos we produce that highlight the stories of the people and places behind finished products and also key issues relating to implementing ethical and sustainable practices on the ground. I share tools and resources for companies beginning or well on their journey to implementing these practices, including the SHP Toolkit and the Toolkit webinar series. Most importantly to me, I bring together individuals from a variety of companies in pre-competitive conversations around how to address the seemingly intractable challenges the industry faces.