History

by Ann Armbrecht

Traditional Herbal Medicine

I came to herbal medicine after completing my doctorate on the connections between people and the land in northeastern Nepal. In herbalism, I found much of what I had encountered in rural Nepal: a quality of respect and restraint in interactions with the environment, a focus on relationship rather than ownership, and a sense of the sacred in interacting with the earth.

I was interested in how these beliefs were expressed in the very different circumstances of the United States. Unlike rural Nepalese on the margins of the modern world, US herbalists engage with cutting-edge science. They draw increasing numbers of students to conferences and classes and produce popular herbal products fueling a growing herbal industry. Herbalists believe the values of herbal medicine can change the world for the better. I wanted to see how this vision and these values were expressed in practice.

With filmmaker Terrence Youk, I co-produced Numen: the Nature of Plants, to celebrate these values and show consumers there is more to herbal medicine than a product on a shelf.

Sustainable Herbs Project Begins

As I learned more, especially about the herbal industry, not surprisingly, I began to see discrepancies and contradictions. Herbalists explained that intention when harvesting plants and preparing remedies was part of the healing power of a plant. Yet few discussed the challenge of sourcing enough plants to meet demand. They emphasized how a practitioner’s relationship with a plant was as important to healing as the constituents of the plant, but then recommended remedies produced no differently from any other commodity on the market.

About us: Explore the medicinal plant supply chain with the Sustainable Herbs Project

Weeding comfrey fields in southern Bulgaria

I created the Sustainable Herbs Project to tell the stories of the people and plants behind the products on the shelves. I wanted to explore:

  • In what ways does understanding the lives of stakeholders in the herb industry matter?
  • By understanding their stories, can we begin to re-connect relationships the economy has severed?
  • How does knowing where herbs come from relate to healing?
  • What do concepts like intention and quality control mean down the supply chain?
  • How do different stakeholders negotiate these meanings?
  • And how does any of this impact the quality of the finished product?

I visited several FairWild certified projects in Eastern Europe in the fall of 2015. After returning, I launched a Kickstarter project to raise funds to create the Sustainable Herbs Project. We had an outpouring of grassroots support – and as proof that no donation is ever too small, the initial $65,000 project was launched with an average of $35 donations!

Acknowledgements

The first phase of the Sustainable Herbs Project was made possible with the financial support from the Institute of East West Medicine and our 974 Kickstarter supporters. It was also made possible by the generous contribution of time made by the many people who gave us tours, answered our questions, and who let us film and photograph aspects of the botanical industry not typically seen by outsiders. See a list of companies visited here.

While it is impossible to thank everyone by name, I would like to thank Josef Brinckmann for his support and guidance on this project from its inception and his willingness to spend hours on the phone explaining the nuances of the herb industry. Thanks also to the input offered by Sebastian Pole and Ben Heron. Thanks especially to Sebastian for inviting us to join Pukka’s team on a visit to their suppliers in southern India and his willingness to let us keep the camera rolling. This trip provided us with a unique opportunity to see not just how herb companies talk about sourcing herbs, but how they actually do it on the ground.

I would also like to thank the first SHP interns, Anita Burke and Willow Fortunoff. Anita helped with research, writing blog posts, and day-to-day administrative tasks. Willow was the photographer for SHP trips to Bulgaria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and part of our time in India (many of the photographs on this website are taken by Willow). They both worked tirelessly and were a wonderful addition to the SHP team!

 

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