You just bought a tea off the shelf to help you sleep that has a total of six different herbs in the formula. Hooray for a safe, natural way to get a better night sleep! We are grateful to the plants for their presence in our lives, as they are the foundation for our nourishment, health and healing. Plants are the source of all of our food – even if you eat meat, all animals we consume feed on plants! Plants, in the form of trees and shrubs, as well as herbaceous plants, also provide our atmosphere with oxygen and clean our soil of heavy metal contaminants. Mysterious and magical!
Let’s go back to that tea you just bought, or the tincture you have at home that you take when you start to feel a cold coming on. You may know what herbs are in there, but do you ever wonder where those herbs came from? Do you know whether or not they are grown sustainably? Harvested sustainably? Well, let’s first take a look at the word: sustainable/sustainability.
In ecology, sustainability is the capacity to endure; it is how biological systems remain diverse and productive indefinitely. In more general terms, sustainability is the endurance of systems and processes. In relation to our plant allies and herbalism, it is (in part) the ability to meet the demand for herbs in the marketplace via sustainable cultivation, harvesting and processing. This involves techniques that ensure healthy soil, air and water, as well as producing botanical medicines that are therapeutically beneficial.
There is no question that in the past 10-15 years, the use of botanical medicines by Americans has increased exponentially. According to SPINSscandata recorded in 2012, dollar sales increased approximately 8% for herbal formulas, 9% for teas and 13% for herbal singles and flower essences, in less than two months!! There are many reasons people are turning to traditional, plant–based therapies, including the high cost of conventional medicine, the effectiveness of botanical medicine and the overwhelming amount of research supporting the healing capacity of herbs. Plants, like any other “resource” (more on this later) are not in infinite supply. As demand increases, we must work to ensure that these plants will be available for generations to come. Native people, who traditionally live close to the earth, have adopted ways of living that ensure what they have will be there for the next seven generations.
Herbs and herbal products have become a fast growing industry that has little to no regulations pertaining to sustainability and ethics in regard to the growing and harvesting of herbs. What this means is that we, as purchasers of herbal products, need to increase our awareness of where the herbs in whatever products we are using are coming from. In essence, we need to be sociably responsible consumers. Drake Sadler, CO-founder of Traditional Medicinals says it beautifully: “as socially responsible consumers, we must align our purchasing decisions around this idea of buying only goods and only medicines which have been harvested and produced in socially responsible ways, or in a sustainable manner.”
You may be asking yourself, how do I find out where and how the herbs I am using were grown? You can start with contacting the company that produced the product you are using. There are quite a few herbal companies that will give the public access to this type of information (and even more companies that won’t). Unfortunately, there has not been much effort in researching and collecting information about where the plethora of herbs on the market are sourced, until recently. There is a project called “the sustainable herbs project” that is doing just that –documenting the sources of herbs and practices of growers around the world. Check it out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/89295547/the-sustainable-herbs-project/posts/1547510. Ann Armbrecht, founder of the project, says that “knowledge has power and having it is the first step to bringing about change.”
Plants are one of our most important allies when it comes to health, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. We, as humans, co-evolved with them, and we are therefore genetically designed to recognize their multi-component chemistry and energy. They are incredibly generous in their offerings, and the least we can do is take care of them as they take care of us. It is our role and responsibility as humans. Plants are not just resources for our consumption, but profound and powerful allies that contribute to our well-being. Personally, I cannot imagine my life without plants and botanical medicine.
Cat Pantaleo CCH, CN
Cat Pantaleo has been a practicing Herbalist and Educator for 14 years, serving as faculty at several Colorado vocational schools in the Boulder/Denver area, including the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies, Seven Bowls School of Nutrition, North American Institute of Medical Herbalism, Healing Spirits Massage Training Program, and Nutrition Therapy Institute.