‘The Business of Botanicals’ Book Review

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Image from annarmbrecht.com

To protect the plants and the ecosystems which nourish them, we harvest our cultivated or wild plants and make medicines carefully; we buy from those we trust to do the same–local herb farmers at the farmers’ market, our local medicinal companies, a local apothecary.  

Many of us are also likely to buy medicinal herbal products–teas, pills, capsules, powders, oils in bottles from a store or website which itself buys them from a supply company which itself buys from lower on the supply chain and so on down to the original herb collector, whose country may be unknown. Many retailers don’t know the ins and outs of this complex production world. 

When we purchase herbs in a bottle or tea bag, how can we be sure we are getting the best medicinal quality? How do we know the herb going into your herbal formula is the species it’s supposed to be? 

How do we make sure you are supporting organizations along the supply chain that ensure employees make a decent, consistent living in healthy surroundings? How do the companies we buy from ensure continuity of collection, with so many foragers preferring to flock to cities for better wages? 

How can we be sure the ecosystem is not being ravaged by over-harvesting and any of many other destructive practices that come with harvesting herbs for commerce? 

How does the herb company we are buying from ensure plant medicine is strong? And if strong, how do they keep it that way while the plant changes hands many times as it travels thousands of miles? 

How do their farmers regenerate biodiversity to keep the ecosystem strong? Wild plants don’t obey farming needs (schedules, soils)  like domestic plants have been bred to do. How do the farmers figure out how to domestically cultivate wild plants to help conserve both them and the wild? How do they deal with changing and inconsistent, formerly reliable, weather and climate patterns? 

How do herbal supply companies work with the effect of politics–war zones, change of regimes, corruption, contamination and so on? How do they counter competitors who bring low-quality herbs to market with correspondingly lower prices?

Juggling these changing, complex factors is daunting for any business person or team, but particularly acute for workers of integrity. 

Author Ann Armbrecht, set out to investigate these questions, to ”see if this industry can honor plants and people.” She wrote about this multi-year journey in  The Business of Botanicals.

Armbrecht explores global herbal medicine supply chains and networks to bring us answers. After surveying the history of the current U.S. herbal industry from its hippie days to now, she takes us with her visiting organic herb farms in the United States, collectors and collecting companies in Poland, and communities in India. We watch and learn from herb industry company leaders, certifiers, and production companies along the supply chain, which is actually more of an intricate and often confusing network than a chain. No one person or company has all the answers, all the solutions, so caring competitors often collaborate. 

In one place she sees brown, dusty, commodified plants sitting by garbage-filled roadsides. In another she hears villagers say, `oh, we thought these fruits were just going to the tanning industry. Now that we know that they will be going to medicine for people, we will harvest with great care.’ 

Armbrecht tells us that the ability of the herbal products industry to sustain itself comes down to three factors: healthy ecological regeneration and maintenance, healthy local cultural continuity and human regeneration. All are intertwined. And how we deal with climate change. And one more: consumer awareness, consumers who care. 

This is a tough set of standards to live up to in the real world.

Some companies work hard to achieve high standards of integrity in all areas, some do the best they can, some whatever they can get away with. All face complex challenges.

In a recent interview with Acres USA magazine, Armbrecht explains that the only way to live up to integrity with intention in a complex supply chain is through caring personal relationship. A California consumer doesn’t have to have a good relationship with the farmer in India who grows the herb they will take, but someone in the production company does. So we have to be  able to trace the product to the farm, forest, or field where it is grown or gathered.

There has to be reciprocal accountability between farmers or foragers and their buyers. Although the process is not perfect, traceability can be achieved through certification via a trusted third party such as Fair Wild. No one person or company has all the answers, all the solutions, so caring competitors often collaborate. 

Relationship, she says, is fostered through attention. “Attention is a kind of care,” she says. The biggest difference she found in quality between one company and another wasn’t scale. It was respectful relationship for both people and plants up and down the supply chain.

At the end of the book, after gripping and crucial experiences, Armbrecht took note when an administrator at an Ayurvedic healing center in South India told her to “be careful about not doing anything just because it isn’t perfect. It [is] important to find the middle way.”

She writes: “I was coming to see that my role in following these plants was less to tell the details of sourcing and production and more to tell stories about the conditions needed for connections between people and plants to be awakened and sustained. These connections happened when people showed up and paid attention.”

She concludes: “Plants invited me on a journey that taught me as much about the qualities of  care and attention needed to create and sustain relationships as it did about the details of processing and manufacturing. This journey has been far more complex than I ever imagined at the outset.  I came to realize that the point was not to arrive at a place where I could make definitive statements about what is or isn’t sustainable. It was about learning how to live in the presence of a world we did not make. Like the plants, the world is alive. And the task first is to meet that aliveness.” 

This book is alive on many levels–challenging, changing our perspectives. For anyone who works with or consumes medicinal herbs, it’s a necessary–and gripping–reading about the state of the medicinal herb supply chain world wide, its effect on real communities of people and plants, and its effect on each one of us as we contemplate this journey on which Ann Armbrecht is our guide. 

We are invited to join Ann in this ongoing inquiry into the Business of Botanicals at the project Armbrecht heads, The Sustainable Herbs Program at the American Botanical Council.

Pamela Sherman is a permaculture educator who gardens at altitude in the Colorado Rockies. Read all of Pam’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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