Written by Sebastian Pole
The current global environmental crisis is common knowledge. I propose that converting our primary medical healthcare systems to include Traditional Herbal Medicine (THM) as a central part of the health system can have a massive impact on the health of the environment as well as on the health of society. In fact, if THM does become front line healthcare it is essential to consider the impact on the environment. The large volumes of herbs that will be required to be grown and harvested to support the health system’s supply of medicines will radically affect local communities and local environments. It could hugely impact the face of farming. It could literally change the face of the world.
Interestingly, the problems that scientists are telling us that have appeared with the sustainable health of the planet appear to be mirrored in the concurrent high levels of degenerative diseases facing society. As ‘global warming’ issues impacting the environment have grown so has the rise in ‘smouldering’ diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer’s and cancer. Is this the microcosm within macrocosm? Are we really just a small part of a larger Gaian system where our health is reflected in the planet’s health and vice versa? I believe so. To be healthy ourselves we have to have a healthy planet. Quid pro quo…..
This ‘paradigm’ of the earth’s health mirroring our own health is nowhere more apparent than in some of the sourcing challenges faced by growing demand. The sustainability of herbal medicines is a very important issue and is affecting all parts of the supply chain. In January 2004, Alan Hamilton, a plant specialist working with the World Wildlife Fund, released a paper on the threat to the herbal community faced by the indiscriminate over harvesting of medicinal herbs. In this paper he notes that approximately 75% of all herbs that are used in herbal medicine come from the wild. He also stated that there are 50,000 species used in healthcare around the world and that 10,000 are threatened; this means that a staggering 20% of all herbal species used throughout the world are under threat. So is there a future for herbal medicine and can the environment support the future demand?
Why is herbal healthcare so important to us?
Let’s have a quick look at some of the reasons medicinal plants are so important to human culture and health.
- In health terms the use of plants is unsurpassed; they have the function of safely strengthening the tissues, immunity and integrity of the body whilst also offering the potential to safely cleanse, detoxify and clear wastes from the body.
- Cutting edge science suspects that one of the reasons for the rise in chronic degenerative diseases is our reduction in the use of plants in our diet. All traditional societies have used plants for healing and their high levels of protective ‘phytochemicals’ such as flavonoids, carotenes and essential oils have all been shown to protect our cells from environmental damage caused by pollution, stress and nutritional deficiencies.
- Herbs are an integral part of nature. They help to protect and increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem.
- They are a valuable part of the human relationship with nature and enhance our connection with the planet. The WHO states that up to 80% of the world’s population depend on herbal medicine as the primary form of medical healthcare.
- They offer health benefits in the form of traditional medical systems, folk medical systems and shamanic healing systems.
- They form a major resource for the healing of known and unknown diseases.
- They offer great financial benefits with the global market being estimated at £12 billion per annum.
- They offer spiritual benefits as guides and symbols of power.
- They protect indigenous cultural values and promote cultural integrity. Having knowledge of local herbal medicines promotes cultural uniqueness, respect and value.
Why is there a threat to the supply of herbal medicines?
It is estimated that the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia includes upwards of 1250 species with approximately 300 of these in regular demand. Similar figures exist for Chinese, Physiomedical and Western herbal medicine. In India and Sri Lanka most herbs come from the wild. That is, in excess of 90% of herbal material used in Ayurveda comes from the forests, mountains and plains of the Indian sub-continent and are sourced in an unregulated manner. That is a heavy burden for nature to bear (Schippman 2004). In other parts of the world there is similar pressure with 80% of species coming from the wild in China and up to 99% in Africa (Schippman 2004, Williams 1996). There is the well understood increasing pressure on natural habitats as global population increases. And, at the same time, there is increased financial pressure on low income communities and as herbal medicines offer a viable source of income this can lead to over-harvesting. It is estimated that global demand for herbals has sky rocketed in the last decade with demand increasing by 10-20% per annum. The problem is that that is very difficult to monitor herbal collection. I have been involved with large scale cultivation and collection programmes for the last fifteen years and believe me it is difficult to monitor and manage. This problem is compounded by the fact that there is relatively little cultivation of herbal medicines.
Some examples of some species that are threatened:
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra anduralensis), is a delicious sweet herb used to strengthen the adrenal glands, reduce inflammation and tonify the lungs. It grows all over the world. In the UK, Pontefract ‘licorice’ was famous in the last century. A large portion of that global supply has come fromaround the world such as China and Turkey. Its increased popularity and lack of controls on harvesting mean that Turkey is now suffering a shortage of wild Licorice.
- Jatamansi (Nardostachys jatamansi) or Indian spikenard only grows in the Himalayas between 3500-5000m altitude and is highly valued for its aromatic calming properties. Apart from its limited growing habitat it also takes three years to grow to full maturity and it has been thoroughly plundered to the extent that it has been listed on the CITES list as a species to be protected from international trade unless it has been cultivated. Despite this it can frequently be seen in some Ayurvedic products in the UK.
- Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), Golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis) and American Ginseng (Panax quinqufolium) have all become endangered in the wild in America due to overharvesting due to consumer demand.
Why do herbs come from the wild?
It might seem obvious but that is where they naturally grow. They often require very specific habitats and may be difficult to cultivate. Another reason is that herb prices are actually very low and so there is a lack of incentive for farmers to grow herbs as they can receive a greater income from conventional food crops. Conversely, they are a relatively accessible source of income for poorer sections of society, to people without land or a regular job. In the higher altitude region of Nepal 100% of the families harvest herbs and it can account for 15-30% of their income. Another piece of ‘herbal folklore’ is that some authorities consider herbs grown in the wild to be more potent and this is reflected in the higher price of up to 30% more being paid for wild collected American ginseng (Panax quinqufolium) in China as opposed to cultivated. This makes sense if you consider that the healing properties of plants are often associated with their own abilities to protect themselves from invading bacteria and funguses that are rife in the wild. (It’s also why organic food is better for you but more about that another time.)
What can we do?
I think that cultivation of medicinal species should be encouraged on a massive scale to ensure that extra burdens on the wild are reduced. It could change farming. It could change how our world looks (most herbal medicines are stunningly beautiful). Alongside this increase in cultivation, sustainable collection systems need to be established. This will help protect local communities and eco-systems. I strongly believe that certification is needed to protect the future of herbal medicines. This certification would inform the consumer if these herbs have been sustainably grown and harvested. At present organic certification along with FairWild certification are two solutions offering some objective assessment of control within the supply chain. If you buy uncertified products there is a chance that they come from an unsustainble source. A simple solution to this is to look for the Soil Association and/or the FairWild symbols on products.
The Fairwild certification is a recent scheme created by WWF, TRAFFIC, IUCN (International Union for the Conservation Nature) and the BfN (German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation) to ensure sustainable wild collection of herbs. It is an example of incentive based conservation that has developed through the pioneering work of experts in managing sustainable livelihoods and eco-systems. It includes the principles of FairTrade, to ensure collectors are fairly treated and appropriately paid, with the practice of sustainable wild collection, ensuring the long-term survival of the species and the community. It ensures that the whole is considered: that people, the plants and the eco-system are all equally important. In this way FairWild certification can transform potentially destructive wild-harvesting practices into a powerful tool for conservation.
Why is organic the best?
It is now well documented that organic foods and herbs have higher levels of secondary metabolite compounds than conventionally grown crops. It is these secondary metabolites that give the plants their therapeutic energetic effects. For example, many alkaloids are bitter, polysaccharides are sweet and mustard glycosides are pungent. This means that in organic plants the ‘energetic qualities’ are more potent and thus more effective. When comparing organic to non-organic food, the mean positive difference in flavour of organic food between the following nutrients is known to be:
- Protein + 12.7%
- Beta-carotene + 53.6%
- Flavonoids + 38.4%
- Copper + 8.3%
- Magnesium + 7.1%
- Phosphorous + 6%
- Potassium + 2.5%
- Sodium + 8.7%
- Sulphur + 10.5%
- Zinc + 11.3%
- Phenolic compounds + 13.2%
A recently concluded European Union research programme concluded that, “Levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds (e.g. antioxidants, vitamins, glycosinolates) were shown to be higher in organic crops”. Conversely “Levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds (e.g. mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, Cadmium and Nickel) were shown to be lower in organic crops”. The 2014 meta-analysis at Newcastle University by Leifert further validated these findings.
The Soil Association UK says “Organic farming and food systems are holistic, and are produced to work with nature rather than to rely on oil-based inputs such as fertilisers. Consumers who purchase organic products are not just buying food which has not been covered in pesticides (the average apple may be sprayed up to 16 times with as many as 30 different pesticides) they are supporting a system that has the highest welfare standards for animals, bans routine use of antibiotics and increases wildlife on farms.” Organic farming offers very clear health and environmental benefits.
I have found that another side-benefit of organic certification is that it necessitates a deeper relationship between the farmer and the trader. Because of the legal requirements, including testing for contaminants (microbiology, mycotoxins), Toxic Elements (heavy metals) and pestidicide residues, it is necessary to have a very close contact with the source of the plants to ensure that Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are in place. This is really Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) for farmers. It ensures quality, consistency and documentation. It ensures ‘transparency’ so that we as consumers know how each species is handled, what inputs have been added and that appropriate checks on quality have taken place.
At Pukka Herbs, we have spent the last fifteen years directly involved in establishing a detailed GACP and organic certification system that brings benefit to the farmer, plant quality and the end user. Through this system we know the name of the farmers, the exact location of cultivation and the date of harvest for all the organically certified species that we produce. It is an evolving process that has led to a much deeper confidence that nature is respected, that the farmers are well treated and the Ayurvedic plants that we produce are of the highest quality.
The final flowering
Traditional Herbal Medicine offers a multi dimensional solution to many of today’s health and ecological issues. One way of healing human suffering as well as reducing ecological destruction is to integrate traditional healing systems within primary health care. The demand for herbal medicines will spur a whole range of herbal growing projects around the UK and the rest of the world which would employ hundreds of thousands of people, protect local ecosystems, absorb millions of tonnes of carbon, and create safe and effective medicines helping to make the UK and the world a healthier and happier place. It would also ease the pressure on stretched NHS resources and redress the balance to an integrated medical system. This will reconnect us with the natural healing patterns of nature as well as heal the endemic destruction of the natural world.
So, despite the concerns mentioned above, I think that with the correct government supported conservation and cultivation efforts the preservation of our traditional herbal medicines is at the heart of the regeneration of an integrated health system as well as the regeneration of our ecosystem. We can make this happen by demanding that we have access to natural herbal healthcare. We know that it is safer than pharmaceutical medicine. We know that it is effective. The herbal tradition is a time-tested and a positive solution for today’s chronic problems of weakened immunity. As our bodies face a radically new set of stressors herbal remedies are here to help us adapt and heal. Make herbs your first choice in healthcare for your own benefit and that of the planets.
We could follow the example of the Vrikshayurveda (the Science of Plantlife), a circa 16 Century CE text by Surapala:
“Knowing this truth one should undertake planting of trees since trees yield the means of attaining dharma (life duty), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure) and moksha (enlightenment).”
Protecting nature protects us.