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Do You Know Where Your Herbs Come From?

Written by Beloozërskiy Ann Ambrecht

“Herbs are the same as chocolate or beer. There’s a difference between a micro-brewery’s India Pale Ale and a bottle of Budweiser. There’s a difference between a Snickers bar and a Swiss chocolate bar. It’s the same with herbs. You can get the Snickers or the Bud or you can get the microbrew or the Swiss chocolate bar. What you get depends on where you look and what you are willing to pay.”  —  Josef Brinckmann

Do you know where the mint or turmeric or echinacea in your cup of tea comes from?

Do you know how it was harvested and by whom? Whether the plants were wild harvested or cultivated in a field? Were the soils were cared for? What kind of sacks were used and where were the herbs stored? How much the workers were paid for their work?

Most importantly, do you know why these and so many more questions matter?

Consumers of herbal supplements tend to believe that in buying products made with plants, they’re making the environmentally responsible choice. Yet outside of the herb community, few of us understand the crucial connections between the quality of the finished product, traceability, and sustainable and ethical sourcing. Even for those seeking to know more, in an industry known for secrecy, it is very difficult to find accurate information about the supply chain or the human and environmental costs.

Where plants come from and how they are handled along the way matters to the quality and efficacy of the finished product. If those processes are good – ‘good’ meaning people are paying attention each step of the way – the finished product will more likely be good. Especially with bulk herbs or herbal teas, the quality of the supply chain directly impacts the quality of the finished product. Details matter: whether workers have washed their hands, what lotion or insect repellent collectors used while collecting the raw materials, what the collection bags were previously used for, whether the plants were harvested in the rain or left in a pile in a tarp for a few days until workers had time to process them. Attention through the supply chain costs money.

Changing this system begins with being curious and asking questions. It begins with recognizing that the finished product on the shelf is only the end of a long journey and that every step of that journey matters in whether that finished product has the effect we hope it will have or not. Sustainability isn’t an add on to consider if we have the money. Paying attention to the conditions that fall under the word “sustainability” determines whether these products truly are helping create more wellness in the world and helping restore the biological and cultural diversity on which all of us depend.

I am a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through my work with plants, herbal medicine, and the botanical industry.

I am the director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, a program of the American Botanical Council, which I began in 2016 to help bridge the gaps between the values of herbal medicine and the reality of sourcing and producing herbs on a global scale.

I am the co-producer of the documentary Numen: the Nature of Plants, and the author of the award winning ethnographic memoir, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, based on my research in Nepal. I am a student of herbal medicine and was a 2017 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar documenting the supply chain of medicinal plants in India. My book, The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry, will be published by Chelsea Green Publishing in February 2021.

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