A Conversation with Sebastian Pole, Co-founder of Pukka Herbs

Pukka herbs

Sebastian Pole is Co-founder and Herbal Director of Pukka Herbs

I met with Sebastian in his home south of Bristol. He served me a cup of Pukka tea and then led me to his office, a large room lined with bookshelves filled with books on India and Hinduism and Ayurvedic medicine and plants. More books were stacked on the floor and on his desk. As soon as he sat down, he began talking and, with little prompting from me, spoke for almost two hours about plants, the supply chain, the planet and Pukka tea.

Pukka Herbs is one of five companies manufacturing finished products that contain FairWild ingredients. My conversation with Sebastian was the last stop on my journey following FairWild certified plants through the supply chain.

I started our conversation by saying how much more industrial, how much messier – how much more about plants as a commodity that needed to be processed than as a living object worthy of our respect – the whole industry was than I had expected when imagining it from afar. Sebastian helped put this into context. I was impressed both by the scope of his vision and his keen awareness of the incremental steps needed to realize that vision. I was also impressed by how frank he was about the challenges they faced. I commented on this. He said, “I haven’t got anything to hide, really. That’s why I don’t feel worried. Though I know some of the things we do will surprise certain herbalists….”

After speaking with Sebastian as well as Ben Heron, also from Pukka, Mike Brook from Organic Herb Trading Company, and Josef Brinckmann from Traditional Medicinals, I have come to understand that there other issues to be more concerned about than the machines and huge warehouses of herbs that had so surprised me on my trip. I am sharing this conversation as part of an ongoing series to educate herbalists and consumers about the industry overall.

I’ve only included a small selection of what was a much longer conversation. As Sebastian explained, he only has a snapshot view of the industry, “I’m into the medicinal grade selection of herbs from within the organic industry, which is like 1% of 1%.” But it is the segment of the industry leading the way toward sustainability. It is important that we understand their vision, the challenges they face, and how we as consumers can best support them.

The Importance of Relationship

I started by describing my project following medicinal plants through the supply chain.

Sebastian: This story needs to be told and it can be difficult to tell if you are in the business and the industry because it appears that you have an agenda and something to sell. And because it can seem like you are criticizing people who aren’t doing what you are doing.

The food chain is an interesting comparison. In the UK, the political-social ideology is that food needs to be cheap. And therefore there is a demand on suppliers and on the shops where you buy your food, to keep your prices down. It is very difficult as a producer and brand to input good quality into your food. Because you can’t make a margin to sell it on. So in the end, the consumer, the people we’re all trying to serve, don’t get served the best – in terms of the wholeness of the earth.

At Pukka, we largely source from people on the margins of society. They might have a good lifestyle, but they’ve got small amounts of land or none at all and so they harvest from the wild. They may be growing quite rare species. They don’t have large incomes traditionally and they’re on the bottom of a long supply chain. We take on a lot of projects to help cut that supply chain down from 8-10 people to 3-4. Three seems to be the best: you have the grower or wild collector, the primary processor (a bigger business to manage processing and export/paperwork, like Runo, the company I visited in Poland), then straight to our processing partner, who can cut it according to our specifications. Then it goes to our customers.

I’m interested in shortening supply chains because then you can have a relationship. Herbal medicine, health, it’s all about relationships, isn’t it?

Herbalists are very good at articulating this. They make it sound elegant, lovely and beautiful and energetic – which it is in its deepest sense, in its deepest truth.

And there is also a lot of technical stuff that goes on in the background in preparing and making potent medicines or remedies. And so that relationship is crucial – I mean it in the broadest sense of the word. We know most of our growers through our partners. I don’t know all their birthdays. But I, or Pukka’s Sourcing team, know many of them by name. I know I can have a dialogue with them. The point of this relationship is so that you can understand their challenges and needs and that they can understand ours.

pukka herbsHaving that quality at the end point definitely requires a relationship through that supply chain. That doesn’t mean you have to hold it all the way through yourself, because obviously that’s not going to happen with trade and transport. But you can know the standards under which your partners operate; you can know how they work. You can know their intention and how they look after the land and the plants and the people that are working for them.

Those three things are essential: the land and the plants and the people. People, Plants and Planet: Pukka’s whole mission is to make sure those three things are honored in how we work.

Looking Beyond the Commercial

Ann: So what do you look for in finding partners you can work with? Or rather, what are the red flags or signs that it won’t likely be a good fit?

Sebastian: I look for something beyond the commercial. I’m looking to see that people are trying to do something and make sure that what they are doing is regenerative, not just generative.

I’m not just interested in generating something because that is relatively easy, especially with cultivation because the earth grows it for you. That’s why I’m so committed to, perhaps obsessed with, organic farming because that is a very good way, not the only way, but a good way of maintaining the boundaries of that relationship: these are the standards by which we need to apply, to work together, to flourish together. The heart of organic is about regeneration: the idea is that you always put more back in than you take out or more of an equilibrium, of give and take. And that is a good starting place for working together.

Then it is about discussion and loyalty and making sure you give commitments to your growers so they know what you need one or two years in advance so they can then plan their needs. And then you have to talk about the problems that arise in between, which they do: from weather and storage and all of the other things that come up.

Why FairWild is so Brilliant

Which is why FairWild is such a brilliant scheme. I’m going to be totally biased, because my life is committed to herbal medicine, but I really think it is the most amazing standard in the world and that the people who developed it over twenty years have really done an incredible service. They’ve focused on understanding and assessing wild harvesting, which is a really complex area that is not well understood by mainstream medicine or legislatures or the food industry.

Pukka Herbs, FairWild and Sustainable Sourcing of Medicinal Plants

Shatavari photo by Pukka Herbs

What happens now is that if the industry is demanding cheap herbs, like our food industry, and the wild-harvesters need to earn more money, then they need to harvest more. And that doesn’t serve the planet very well because this means people tend to over harvest and as you over harvest, you get lower quality. Like our fish stocks, as you over harvest you get smaller and smaller fish. It is the same with herbs. One of the alarm-bells in herbal supply is that you notice root size getting smaller and smaller. Then you know people are over harvesting.

FairWild empowers the people so they get paid more, as individuals and as a community, and it protects the natural resource of the herbs into the future.

Ann: I’ve been impressed by the work that has gone into developing the standard and especially, as you say, by the people who developed it. On my recent trip, I was able to see a bit more of the gap between the vision of something like this and the challenges of its implementation. For example, the heads of the companies I visited who are responsible for implementing many of the regulations of FairWild mentioned tensions created by the premium.

Sebastian: I can see that. We’re involved in four or five FairWild projects. They are all challenging. The distribution of that money is very difficult and very complex. It is challenging because you don’t want to impose your western values on another community because I don’t understand some of their social fabric. But it is good in a way that those tensions are brought to the surface, because they’ve probably been there for years, i.e. feelings that this person is going to that patch earlier than me. And what’s good about the community fund is it gets distributed among the community and then it gives them a chance to decide.

Ann: And also perhaps that it is building something that hasn’t been there before.

Sebastian: Yes, opening out to more members of that community that might not have had a say before, inviting in perhaps some more equality than was there before. And that can be tough in the discussions. But in the places where we’ve worked that gets worked through. It’s like at Pukka: we’re distributing some profit share, and there is some debate about who gets what. It seems to be a normal human thing. But the principle of the thing is brilliant. A bit like Fair Trade standards, and it takes lots of effort to make sure that happens fairly. And that’s difficult for companies because of limited resources. That’s why working through certified agencies, like FairWild or Fair Trade or Organic, is good, because they’ve got the experts who have experienced these things in lots of different situations and countries.

I love that idea that marginalized people get recognized for what they do, that they get a more honored status in their society, i.e. that collecting from the wild becomes a respected thing. I could be a bit idealistic about that actually because it is a big challenge for the future of the herb community, a lot of people won’t want to collect herbs in the future anymore.

pukka herbs

Himalayan collector, photo from Pukka Herbs

In my experience, it’s the same everywhere. Young kids want to go do something more exciting: whatever that is, it might not be more exciting when they discover the harsh reality. And you can go full circle: in the west, now and in herbal communities: I dream of going into my garden or going into the wild to harvest, but I don’t have to do it every day and my livelihood doesn’t depend on it. And I probably couldn’t lift and carry a 40 kilo sack down the mountain.

Wild collection is hard, hard work and it needs to be remunerated fairly. And that is the challenge in a world where we’ve got a box of tea, selling for a few dollars. That is not very much money as it gets divided down the line.

The value of herbs is undervalued in every sense of the word, I’m not making a plug for Pukka making more money, but herbs are undervalued in the sense of how much hard work it is. All agriculture is, because we think we can take from nature and not pay back and the people who are involved in that taking often don’t get paid as well or fairly.

FairWild makes a statement to our society that there is a different way of doing something and that we can do it differently.

In the end, the overall cost is much less, though the price tag might be a little bit more, the cost to the earth and the resource and the social challenge in the end is much less.

And it is also brilliant because of the resource assessment required. Yes, the assessment can be extremely complicated. That isn’t because of the standard per se but because doing a resource assessment of plants is challenging to do. It is very challenging to understand the life cycle of the plant within a diverse habitat.

FairWild is extremely rewarding for me and all of us at Pukka. Because the last thing I want is that, as Pukka becomes more successful, it damages the source, which we were trying to support and care for in the first place, whether that be the planet or the collectors or the herbal tradition.

That’s why it is so brilliant because it protects those things. And we know that anything from the wild that is FairWild certified is completely looked after, that there is a limit to what we can take and that there is a feedback to that relationship. If you don’t have that feedback, you’re just buying on the open market and you don’t know where the plant is coming from. That might not be a problem, but in my experience it is likely to be a problem.

What’s good about organic and FairWild is that I know that none of my crops are ever sprayed by fertilizers, pesticides. I know with for any plants that are FairWild certified, resource assessments been done and that collectors are being paid a premium, because we check that and we are checked ourselves, our auditors check us. There are controls through the system. And you need to have that. I think. Because we’re a big old population – seven billion of us. We are using a lot of the earth’s resources and if you don’t check to see how much there is left to use, you have no idea what to do.

It’s like your bank account. We don’t treat the world like our own bank account. We’re on permanent overdraft. So therefore we think we can spend what we don’t have. But that’s not how most people manage their finances. You say, “I don’t have enough money to go out. Okay, I’ll stay in.”

Sustainable Healthcare

Ann: So these standards help ensure that using these resources is not just driven by economics.

Sebastian: The experts at WWF, TRAFFIC and others developed the standard in order to create positive change in the world. To make the world a better place. I don’t just mean nicer, I mean better in the sense that it is self-feeding.

And I think that’s what sustainable health care is all about, which is ultimately what herbalism is all about: how do we have a sustainable health care system that nourishes us, that alleviates pain, most importantly, and that includes materials that don’t cause pain in their sourcing or their supply chain.

Health in the future depends on a sustainable supply chain of herbs because we need it; our society needs it. We are facing major health crises and herbs offer support for people that mainstream medicine doesn’t. And herbalists promote their value by offering affordable and sustainable healthcare. And I think the herbal industry’s job is to make sure that the plants we provide to herbalists are from sustainable sources and that these plants will do the things that are expected of them because they are high quality.