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First do no harm: A call for sustainable herbalism in clinical practice

Written by Josef A. Brinckmann

First, do no harm… neither to the patients nor to the natural habitats of medicinal plants

As a medicinal plant researcher, I (really) enjoy digging around in the intersections of traditional medical knowledge, biogeography, ethnoecology, conservation biology, history of trade, and archaeobotany. Over thirty years ago, when working in San Francisco at the community clinic of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM), I wondered about the geographic origins, the ecosystems, the lives of the people, where the several hundreds of dried medicinal plants in our pharmacy came from. The herbs were simply procured from importer/traders in Chinatown. No traceability to a specific production site back then. Those importer/traders had procured the herbs from their counterpart exporter/traders, far across the ocean in China, the world’s most populous country and third largest country in terms of area. End of story…

…until around the start of the 21st century… by the early 2000’s, botanical supply chain visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world, gradually became more-and-more possible with the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS),1 some that were designed specifically for medicinal plants, coupled with the emergence of good agricultural and collection practice (GACP) standards for medicinal plants.2 Nearly impenetrable since colonial times, the veil of botanical supply chain secrecy was slowly being lifted.

About ten years ago, after having worked on a medicinal plant sustainable production initiative in China,3 I brought a Chinese delegation to ACTCM, including representatives from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF China), the State Forestry Administration of China, and Chengdu University of TCM, to discuss a proposed new curriculum that aimed to educate TCM students and practitioners on the conservation status and sustainability of medicinal plants used in clinical practice, and other innovations to modernize formulations in order to substitute the use of animal ingredients with sustainably harvested plants.4

Since 1979, I have worked at all levels of the medicinal plant sector; organic farm and wild collection, production of extracts, manufacturing of finished herbal medicinal products, TCM clinic, standards-setting (quality and sustainability), and consulting governmental- and intergovernmental organizations in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation projects in Africa, Asia, and South America.
From 2002 to 2016, I served as International Consultant on Market Intelligence for Medicinal Plants at the International Trade Centre, the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations; 2004-2008 as a member of the International Standard for the Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP) Steering Group; and 2008-2021 as a member of the Board of Trustees of the FairWild Foundation, a standards setting organization for sustainable wild collection of medicinal plants. I presently serve as Research Fellow for Medicinal Plants and Botanical Supply Chain at Traditional Medicinals (Sebastopol, California).
I am an elected member of the United States Pharmacopoeia Botanical Dietary Supplements and Herbal Medicines Expert Committee. At the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, I am an advisor on commercial sources & handling and international regulatory status. I serve as an Advisory Board member of the American Botanical Council and Advisory Group member of ABC’s Sustainable Herbs Program. In 2016, I was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in Healing and Sustainability honoris causa from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and California Institute of Integral Studies.

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