About the Issues
photo by Larken Bunce
The Business of Herbalism
Botanical medicine, the art and science of collecting, preparing, and utilizing plants for healing, is one of the oldest healing methods in human history. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world's population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary healthcare.
There is a wide range, however, in what is marketed as herbal medicine. The effectiveness of botanical medicine necessarily depends on the quality and vitality of the original plant material and on the care and attention brought to harvesting, processing, and storage. These issues are crucial to the quality of any product we consume; they are especially important when we use remedies as medicine for healing.
As the natural products industry has grown—it was measured to be $5 billion in the United States alone in 2009—compromises have been made along the chain of production that undermine the integrity and efficacy of the medicines produced. Plants might be harvested incorrectly or at the wrong time so that, instead of being vibrant green, the leaves have yellowed and started to die. They might be stored improperly, irradiated with chemicals, or adulterated with similar species that are easier to harvest or more plentiful.
In more extreme examples, harsh solvents such as hexane are used to extract the chemical constituents of the plant. To top it off, it is difficult or impossible to prove the percentages of constituents claimed on labels are actually in a medicine or to demonstrate batch-to-batch reliability.
photo by Larken Bunce
It is possible to find potent efficacious medicine—you just need to know what to look for and where. The more informed we are as consumers, the more we can demand from the manufacturers producing the medicines. In this way, we can help improve the overall quality of botanical remedies available over time.
Here are some basic questions to ask to begin navigating the maze of herbal products:
- If cultivated, were the plants grown organically?
- Were they ethically wildcrafting?
- How do you know there is no adulteration?
- How does a company ensure that there are no heavy metals/pesticide residues in the plant material? (Options include testing, knowing where to harvest plants that haven't been contaminated, cultivating one's own using organic methods, etc.)
How were the constituents extracted?
- Even though the plants themselves may be "natural," some extraction processes involve harsh chemicals and solvents and are not at all natural. It can be particularly difficult to find out information about this—and confusing to try to interpret what companies claim on their websites. Ask a company what processes it uses, or ask herbalists and practitioners you respect to recommend brands.
Social and Ecological Sustainability
- Are those growing and harvesting the medicines receiving a fair wage?
- Are the plants harvested in ways that enhance their long-term viability and health?
- A wealth of information about these issues is available on the web. Some places to start are:
- International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP)
- People and Plants International
- For an introduction to safety and regulatory issues concerning botanical medicines: Center for Spirituality and Healing