Ben Heron, Sustainable Herbs Manager for Pukka Herbs, oversees sourcing of key ingredients, ensuring that the methods of growing, harvesting, and processing the herbs meet Pukka’s quality and sustainability standards. SHP Intern Anita Burke edited the following from a Skyped conversation between Ann and Ben in October 2014.
Introducing People to the Magic of Herbs
Ben Heron began his conversation with Ann by talking about how inspiring Numen was. He said, “We share the same mission: to introduce people to the magic of herbs. I found Numen very refreshing as it talked about some of the deeper aspects of herbal medicine and our relationship with plants, which sometimes gets lost in the day to day operations of a herb business. At Pukka we try to make our teas and remedies accessible to everyone, so I guess we only go so far in talking about things like plant spirit medicine, as not everyone is open to it.
“We are also quite restricted in what we are legally allowed to say about the herbs we use, especially in regards to their medicinal uses. And, to conform with regulations, we are bound to a culture of testing and analysis that is quite reductionist by nature. So I think it’s really important that there are films like Numen to remind us all that herbs are much more than just ‘raw materials’ in a herbal product.”
Ann: It was interesting to see how Numen was received by audiences. It seemed to highlight a divide between people who believe medicine can come from a garden and those, even those who shop at farmers markets, support local food, grow and buy organic food, who believe medicine can only come from the pharmacy. My hope with all of this work is to help bridge this divide, to show everyone not only the healing power of plants but also that that medicine can come from plants we can grow ourselves.
Ben: Which is what your film did, and why we do what we do at Pukka. It’s because we love the herbs. For me personally, my love of the mountains and passion for medicinal plants led me into conservation, and conservation led me into livelihoods, and that led me into the herb business. So it was very much informed by my love of the plants and what and how they spoke to me.
Ben talked about what led him to India in 2000, at the age of 22. He was a woodcarver, painter, and artist. He became involved in environmental conservation initiatives and organic farming. The more time he spent in the mountains, the more he discovered how many medicinal plants were becoming threatened from over-harvesting.
“I wanted to get into growing them. This led me to meet Sebastian, who had just set up Pukka in 2002. He set me off on this journey. He gave me a list of botanical names and asked me if I could grow them for Pukka. I said, ‘It can’t be that difficult.’
But it then took me nine years to get my first shipment of cultivated Kutki to Pukka, with a CITES permit.”
Quality and Sustainability
From 2006-2012, Ben lived in India, working as both a supplier and as a buyer visiting herb facilities. This gave him an interesting perspective on both sides of the industry and an opportunity to follow herbs on their journey through the supply chain. He spent a lot of time with local herb collectors in the mountains, where he learned how they live and why they collect endangered herbs.
Ann: When you’re looking for suppliers, what do you look for in knowing whether companies will be able to provide the quality needed?
Ben: We take into account how each herb is produced and the supplier’s understanding of quality and sustainability. Where does the plant come from? What are the risks in terms of quality and sustainability at each stage of production? That starts to build a picture of how we can work with the supplier to minimize and prevent those risks.
A lot of herb processing in India is very basic; for example, it’s common to see herbs drying on the ground with animals wandering around, or stored in re-used sacks in a damp shed. To meet Pukka’s quality standards we have to do things very differently. We often begin by trying to consolidate production into certain areas so farmers and collectors can easily take freshly harvested material to a central facility run by someone in the village where the herbs can be hygienically dried, packed and stored.
I’m not sure many people are aware just how many herbs are still collected from the wild. For many years our focus was on shifting herbs from wild collection to cultivation so that we knew they were from a sustainable source.
Shifting to cultivation is not the solution. It’s a solution. It’s a means of providing us with a sustainable supply through cultivation, but it doesn’t always address the problem of collectors’ livelihoods.
That’s where FairWild certification comes in: it provides a means of verifying the sustainability of wild collected herbs, and instead of depleting the herbs in their natural habitat, collectors are given financial incentives to sustainably manage the environment, which can be a powerful tool for conservation.
The Great Pied Hornbill & the Bibhitaki Tree
Ben gave an example of meeting livelihood and conservation involving FairWild, the Great Pied Hornbill and the Bibhitaki tree:
“The Great Pied Hornbill, a bird found in the forests of India’s Western Ghats, mates for life. The female builds her nest in the hollow of the bibhitaki tree, one of the only trees large enough to accommodate her and the nest. She lays her eggs only after sealing herself in by building a wall of feces and bark, and relies on the male Hornbill to feed her and the chicks for the next 4 months.
“The fruit of this same tree is one of Ayurveda’s most valued ingredients. Unfortunately, many of these trees in the Western Ghats also produce valuable timber and are a source of income for local landowners. The fruit, which offers a more sustainable source of income, is rarely collected because the market is either too far away or the price is too low. By providing a reliable market and a premium price for the fruit, the local villagers have an incentive to protect these majestic bibhitaki trees, thereby protecting the Great Pied Hornbill.”
See SHP videos on Pukka’s work with AERF (Applied Environmental Research Foundation and FairWild).
Business as a Sustainable Model
Ben continued, “I’ve worked with lots of NGOs [non-governmental, or non-profit organizations] in the past. And I found the moment we started generating income rather than getting funding from donors, our relationship with the community changed overnight. They trusted us far more when we were operating as a for-profit company. That’s partly their suspicion of NGOs from the past. But it is just very simple when you can go in and say, look we’re here to do business with you, because that is how everyone operates in day to day business, whether selling bottles of milk or selling herbs. If we go in and talk business they are far less suspicious than an NGO coming in to say we are coming in to help you. This is my experience in India, I’m sure it isn’t that way everywhere.
“By working as a business we have a sustainable model. We have the funding mechanism already up and running. And there is no defined period of time as is often the case with NGOs. It isn’t a three-year project or four-year project that is defined at the outset. Once the project is up and running, we are confident that we have the support needed through the business model. In terms of integrating conservation and business, that is the most progressive model there is.
“There are other situations where different conservation strategies (such as protected areas, national parks etc.) may be more progressive. But in terms of sustainable resource use, if people can be provided with financial incentives to preserve biodiversity, well that’s the ultimate answer, because that is the ultimate concern for most people, and that’s ultimately the incentive driving the destruction: the need for income. So we can’t start talking about our western perspective of the value of biodiversity from a deep ecology perspective. We might understand that in the West, but we have the financial luxury to think of it that way. We’re not the ones taking that bottle of milk 5 km to sell it for our survival. So we really have to think through their lens if we are going to find solutions that work for them. Which is why it comes down to financial incentives. Thus the need for some kind of sustainable business rather than relying on foundations and funding or grants.”
Herbal Medicine and Mainstream Consciousness
Ann: What is important for consumers to know about supply chain? Especially in the US, the herb industry is driven by price. Buyers and consumers want the cheapest product available and don’t understand the relationship between a higher price and higher quality. Before beginning this project, I had no idea what was involved in ensuring higher quality through the supply chain. I’ve learned so much about what it takes to do it well.
Ben: There are so many tiny details. I think it is really important to tell this story, as not enough people are asking these questions. If we are asking the questions, we are already on the right track. It is even more important to influence people’s consumption habits who aren’t already looking for ethically produced, sustainably produced plants, and to encourage them to think about where their herbs come from.
I personally believe nothing is going to be better than harvesting the plants from your own garden and processing them with love, but the mission is to get herbal medicine into mainstream consciousness which sometimes requires growing and processing herbs on a large scale. Perhaps the answer is to do both: to grow whatever we can for ourselves and buy the rest from responsible herb companies. Maybe we need to start encouraging this more through the Pukka website – to say, this is what we’re offering, but please grow your own as well – experience the magic of living herbs for yourselves, as they really are much more than ingredients in a herbal tea.