Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry

photo by Ann Armbrecht

Ann Armbrecht is an author, filmmaker and the Director of the Sustainable Herbs Program. Since her time studying with legendary herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, who emphasizes a kin-centric relationship with plants, Ann has explored the nature of plants as living entities rather than merely inanimate objects to ingest. Her recent book The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry took her on an international journey to investigate how the commodification of herbal medicine affects the essence of plants. Ann was interviewed by Arty Mangan of Bioneers.

ARTY MANGAN: Ann, what is the origin of your quest to find out how to maintain the “aliveness” of medicinal plants as they travel through global supply chains?

ANN ARMBRECHT: It really began with my experiences in Nepal. I’d been to Nepal right after college for a year-and-a-half working with Tibetan refugees, and I really wanted to get back there, so I entered an anthropology graduate program that would make that possible, and I wound up getting a doctorate in anthropology in large part just because that helped me to get back to Nepal, but to be honest I was never interested in anthropology as an academic career. And I felt a huge tension between academia and the experiences I had living in a rural village in northeastern Nepal for two years, the way people there related to the natural world and to plants. In rural Nepal everything I had learned with my head at the university got turned upside down, and I couldn’t find a home for my changed worldview when I came back to Harvard.

With herbal medicine, the way Rosemary Gladstar teaches it, intuition and a sense of the sacred are central. Ceremony is part of that, but it goes deeper. It’s not superficial ceremony. It’s about an invisible world beyond what we can see with our naked eye that we can have a relationship with. I had experienced and encountered that in rural Nepal. It just made everything much richer and more meaningful, but that’s really hard to discuss in an academic setting and be taken seriously.

ARTY: In the book, you use the words laral, charwa, and viriditas to describe some of the intangible essences or the qualities of “aliveness” of plants.

ANN. Yes, charwa is a word the Yamphu tribe in Nepal use to describe the essence they perceive in grains that were handed down by their ancestors. Their priests and shamans talk about “seeing double”—being able to see both the world of the ancestors and the world of the living. They go on a spirit journey into the world of the ancestors and bring back baskets of charwa that they pour into the grain bin, but it’s an invisible, ineffable substance that they are convinced makes grain last a long time, longer than the same kind of grain that doesn’t have that ancestral charge, the charwa added to it.

I came across the word laral in the work of literary philosopher Robert Pogue Harrison who was drawing on the work of the renowned mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The word comes from Lares, one of the household gods of the ancient Romans. Laral also pertains to an invisible relationship, an immeasurable quality, but one you know when it’s there or not.

The herbalists I respect most talk a lot about the importance of the intention you put into plants when you harvest them as a key factor in the potency of the medicine, but these same herbalists sometimes recommend products that are bought and sold in large amounts on a global supply chain. I wanted to see if you could still find those intangible, invisible but crucial qualities in plants once they are put into a global supply chain and how that energy might express itself under those circumstances. 

Ann Armbrecht (center) conducting interviews at Infusion, Brisitol, UK

ARTY: Historically, the global medicinal plant trade paralleled colonialism. You mention in your book that the Portuguese, the first global maritime spice traders, set the tone early when they secured their control over the spice trade in India with cannons. 

ANN: Yes, and those patterns have had lasting outcomes. Countries that are no longer colonies are still selling their products predominantly to the countries that colonized them. Those trade relationships emerged out of exploitative terms and prices that were set when the colonies had no say about the practice of extracting resources from their lands, and the imbalance in the power dynamics hasn’t improved all that much. I feel that current conversations about sustainability should grapple with those exploitive trade relationships and how hard it is to change them. And that’s not just the botanical industry, but the botanical industry is implicated because the spice trade was to a large extent what launched colonialism. 

But the history of plant use is complex. For example, the ethnobotanist Claudia Ford did extensive research on the many uses of cotton, and she came across very credible historical accounts of how slave women had used cottonseed to induce abortions after being raped by plantation owners, who saw those women as property and wanted to increase their property by having more slave children. So, even though the desire for cheap labor to harvest cotton was a major factor driving the slave trade, enslaved women also found ways to use the plant, in the form of cottonseed, to resist oppression. Meanwhile the owners hired doctors who used other plants, such as Black-haw (Viburnum prunifolium) to try to prevent the abortions and miscarriages these women were trying to induce. 

ARTY: The doctors of the “Eclectic” movement in the 1800s and early 1900s developed an American medicinal herbal body of practice based on what they had learned and borrowed from a number of other healing traditions, including some Native American, African, European, and perhaps Asian approaches as well. Medicinal herbs were a regular part of those doctors’ practices, but using plants as medicine fell out of favor in the 20th Century. 

Removing weeds from a comfrey field in Bulgaria. Photo by Willow Fortunoff

ANN: Paul Starr’s book, the Transformation of American Medicine, traces that history in great detail. There were a lot of different contributing factors. In the early 1900s, you could go into any pharmacy and there would be plant liquid extracts made by Parke Davis and Lily and other major companies, but that died out with the germ theory of disease as the main framework for looking at illness, and people wanting a quick fix. Penicillin and other antibiotics were discovered and produced at a time when many people were dying in surgery from infection. The ideas of the “silver bullet” cure and “better living through chemistry” became dominant. Herbal medicines didn’t taste good and weren’t seen as modern.

The famous herbalist David Winston, who is an authority on the Eclectics, also says that they didn’t modernize or catch on to the new discoveries in the way that they might have, so part of their decline was perhaps self-inflicted. Medical historians often point to the Flexner Report, which, in 1910, derided and rejected botanical therapies, as the main reason why the use of herbal medicine declined. Following that report, for example, industrialist John D. Rockefeller only funded medical schools that taught allopathic medicines (and insisted they eliminate traditional herbal and natural remedies from their curricula), but there were a number of things that contributed to traditional herbal medicine falling out of favor. 

ARTY: Today, plant medicine seems to have made a comeback. It’s a multi-billion dollar business globally (almost $10 billion in the U.S. alone), and thousands of different species of plants are sourced internationally. In your research, you found a great deal of variance when it comes to processing standards. What are some of the things you found?

ANN: Ideally, you want to know that the company you buy from knows where the herbs they are selling are from and that they have a direct and, one hopes, ethical relationship with the people they buy them from, but sadly that’s not the norm. We saw a lot of carelessness and a wide range of standards. We saw sacks that weren’t labeled, so the herbs from one sack could mix into another sack. You think you’re getting ashwagandha, but you might be getting something else. One buyer said the trader told him he was getting chamomile from Hungary, but there was an Egyptian newspaper in the sack. There were many terrible stories about things found in sacks of herbs. In some places, there was a lack of rodent control. There were sacks of herbs open to the air, so who knows what could get into them. Herbs that are stored in the open air with temperature fluctuation are going to take in moisture and then dry, which will reduce the medicinal constituents. You want a company to measure the micro-compounds in plants, so you know you’re getting vibrant plant material that will have a beneficial effect, but I found that that’s exceedingly rare.

When the Eclectics died out, the whole supply chain and the knowledge of the supply chain and quality control died with it. With the Eclectics, there was rigorous quality control and knowledge about how to evaluate quality. That died out in the U.S., but fortunately it didn’t die out in Germany or Europe, or India or China where there are long traditions of sourcing botanicals for their systems of medicine. They have different grades of quality and often the top-quality herbs stay in their own countries and the lower quality stuff is exported to the U.S. That’s changing some now with more awareness here, but it’s still a factor; we have a long way to go.

Sorting dried FairWild certified bibhitaki fruits, Western Ghats, India. Photo by Ann Armbrecht

ARTY: What are some of the most important aspects of the supply chain process that help ensure the quality of medicinal herbs and herbal products when they get to the end user?

ANN: It starts with the plants in the field where they’re growing: they should be harvested at the right time. Knowledge about the plant is especially important with wild-collected plants. You want collectors who are knowledgeable and can identify the correct plants and are harvesting from areas that are clean or as clean as possible. Harvesting plants at the right time when their active constituents are at their highest concentrations is crucial. All the traditional systems of medicine specify when the constituents are the most potent. In some Tibetan systems, whether it’s growing on the north side of a slope or the south side of a slope can affect the optimal harvest time. It can be quite detailed.

Then you want to get it to the next stage as quickly as possible. If it’s to be dried, you don’t want to leave freshly harvested plants in stacks. You need to get them into the drying process or into extraction as quickly as possible. Herbs need to be dried at the right temperature and for the right amount of time. If it’s under-dried, microbes can grow; if it’s over-dried, the constituents are lost. How it’s stored is also crucially important. You want to make sure it’s stored in clean sacks in which nothing has been stored before. The storage facility temperature should not fluctuate a lot. There should be good rodent control, and if it’s a dried material, it should be cut in as big pieces as possible for as long as possible because that preserves the constituents longer. 

ARTY: You wrote that “the landscape becomes a product governed by the logic of capital, no longer attached to place.” You quote Craig Holdrege, co-director of the Nature Institute, who states: “There are no characteristics without context.” Can you talk a little bit about the importance of a connection to place? 

ANN: Well, for example, herbalists recommend Echinacea or Elderberry to get rid of a cold as if there was a generic plant identical in all places. What I understand Craig Holdrege to mean is that place and context matter a lot: nettles that are collected from wild certified collectors in Eastern Poland are not the same as nettles from a certified organic small farm in Vermont. Each one has its own story of the place where the plants are from. Personally, I don’t take a lot of herbal products. I grow some herbs and use those, or I take herbs that I know where they’re from. That way, I have a relationship and for me that relationship relates to the laral concept. It’s not just a product I’m taking and then going about my day. I pause and think about that relationship. I think that connection matters. 

ARTY: One of the questions that you pose in the book is: “Can a company be ethical in an unethical economic system?” What are some of the strategies that some of the ethical companies employ to work respectfully and fairly with all aspects of the supply chain?

Harvesting catnip, Trout Lake Farm, Washington. Photo by Bruce Yolk

ANN: One thing about the botanical industry that surprised me is how fragmented it is. Small-scale companies don’t have the resources to invest in the source community, so many companies work with middlemen, groups that buy from a variety of growers and collectors and then sell to the brand companies, who then produce the finished product. That said, even brands that don’t have a direct connection with growers and collectors can still find ways to value them.

Mike Brook, from Organic Herb Trading Company (OTHC) in the UK, talked about the cultural relationship his firm has with producer groups. OTHC doesn’t want to be a “white trader” coming in and imposing its ideas about quality control standards and values without understanding and respecting the needs of the growers and collectors. Things like upfront payments, fair pricing and contracts can be the basis for a respectful relationship, even if there is not a direct connection with the growers and collectors of the plants.

A person I spoke to at a large botanical farming co-op that we visited in Germany said what makes a difference is when the buyer isn’t just chasing the cheapest price year-to-year from different suppliers but commits to working with them for a while to develop a relationship, to develop a commitment to troubleshooting problems together. In that sort of situation, if a botanical doesn’t pass the quality control standards, the supplier and buyer can work together with the collector or grower to figure out how to improve the system and help the farmers get the resources they need to improve. 

ARTY: You write about how one company, Traditional Medicinals, went beyond the standards you just mentioned and worked to help improve the lives of families in an Indian village where they source from. You describe how Traditional Medicinals co-founder Nioma Sadler noticed the women (and girls as young as 2 years old) carrying water all day from a community well to their homes. She told her husband and co-founder Drake Sadler that they shouldn’t return unless they could do something to improve the water situation and the lives of the women there, so Traditional Medicinals helped fund the installation of over 300 underground rainwater catchment tanks and named them after the women of the households. 

ANN: So much of that was Nioma’s personality and how she developed relationships with people in that village, especially the young girls. It makes good business sense because if you’re sourcing a botanical from a community where all the farmers are totally stressed, they’re going to cut corners in growing the crop.

I spoke with a producer in the country of Georgia who said: “The wild collectors care about what they need to do to make a living. If you want them to care about biodiversity, you need to help them make a good enough living so that they can take care of biodiversity by not overharvesting.” From a business point of view, if you care about the quality in the short term and having a raw material in the long term, it makes sense that the communities and the environment are healthy. Unfortunately, not many companies seem concerned with that.

I was struck by how many companies have many people in their marketing departments and only one or two in sourcing who are getting to know where the plants actually are from and what the conditions of the communities the growers are living in actually are. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement.

My objective in writing the book was to help readers see the system from the perspective of the different people involved and the different stakeholders. The Sustainable Herbs Program is initiating conversations to bring together different voices beyond those who have often been the only ones we hear from. We are connecting producer groups from Croatia, Georgia, Peru, Nepal and India with companies in the U.S., Germany and the UK to speak about issues around wage, income, and soil health to bring more depth to conversations around sustainability rather than just throwing the word around.

Herbal medicine can be a container for a right relationship with the Earth. Robin Kimmerer talks about honorable harvest, and a person who works for a long-time German trading family talked about the concept of the “honorable businessman.” Both of those concepts make me think about the cultural container of our relationship. Capitalism tends to be just about price, and it seems that the botanical industry, which is rooted in traditions of right relationship, has the potential to be ethical in an unethical economic system. I don’t know if it is possible, but if any industry should be leading the way, I feel like the botanical industry should be because relationship with the plants should be at the heart of it.

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