This conversation with Josef Brinckmann, Vice President of Sustainability for Traditional Medicinals, for Numen inspired my current research following herbs through the supply chain of the botanical industry. And so I wanted to include some excerpts here to provide the foundation for this new project.

In an industry rife with unethical and unsustainable practices, Josef is a real leader in working to create sustainable supply chains. His work shows that it is possible to source and process herbs sustainably and ethically.

Josef and others that I will profile on this blog over the next few months are leading the way in making the entire industry more responsible and more accountable to the plants and the people on whose shoulders the industry rests.

My goal in this project is to support their efforts by helping create a more educated and more discerning consumer market for herbal products; one that is better able to read through marketing claims and is, when necessary, more willing to pay for the work it takes to produce high quality, sustainably sourced herbal medicine.

Overview of Botanical Industry

Ann: Can you begin by giving an overview of the botanical industry?

Josef: There are estimates of up to 70,000 species of medicinal plants used in the world, of which about 3000 are traded. So that means the vast majority are used locally. Most of the medicinal plant species that are used locally are in Asia, in places like China and India, where there is a long history of traditional herbal medicine. China is the largest producer both as a domestic user and an exporter of medicinal plants in the world. Next is India. The vast majority of medicinal plants in use and traded are coming from Asia, mostly from China and India and other Asian countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea.

Josef Brinckmann talks about social and ecological responsibility in the herb industry

Medicinal plants in storage waiting to be processed and shipped overseas.

In Europe, much of the supply of medicinal plants come from southeastern and eastern European countries and western Asian countries. Germany is one of the biggest importers of medicinal plants in the world. And for many herbs coming from Bulgaria or Romania or Croatia, even if they are destined for the United Kingdom or Canada or the United States, they travel through Germany first. Germany has a long, well established system for processing, sorting and grading medicinal plants, for selecting out the therapeutic qualities, and for doing the value added processing.

After China and India, the main producers include the Mediterranean countries, Egypt and Morocco, and then, on the European side, Romania, Bulgaria and other Balkan countries.

Ann: What is the situation like in the US? Where do most of the herbs on the market come from here?

Josef: The most important medicinal plants produced on farms or wild collected in the US for domestic use and export are the various species of Echinacea, the flowering aerial tops and the roots, as well as Peppermint, Hops, and also wild collected plants like Black Cohosh, American Ginseng, Goldenseal, and tree barks like Slippery Elm bark.

Wild-collection and Cultivation in Trade

Ann: Wild-collection and cultivation – how many of each are on the market? Can you say a bit about why some medicinal plants are some brought into cultivation and others aren’t?

Josef: Traditionally and historically plants have been wild-collected and over time some have made it into domestication. But out of the roughly 70,000 medicinal plant species that are in use in the world, less than 1000 are produced under controlled cultivation. Some of those are both cultivated and wild-collected and so only a very small amount are in cultivation.

There are many reasons for that. Some plants have been brought into cultivation but without success. Some may never be brought into cultivation because of where they thrive. Plants that thrive in rocky barren high altitude areas are not likely to be brought into cultivation. And plants that are dependent on other species in the tropical forest area may not thrive in cultivation outside of their natural habitat. So there were a million good reasons why most plants will never be brought into controlled cultivation.

Nettles and many other European medicinal plants are wild collected from these private adjacent lands in NE Poland for Runo. The lands, and so the plants collected here, are certified organic.

Nettles and many other European medicinal plants are wild collected from these private adjacent lands in NE Poland for Runo. The lands, and so the plants collected here, are certified organic.

Ann: Herbalists sometimes talk about the greater vitality and quality of plants growing in the wild. Is there a difference in chemical constituents between the two?

Josef: The difference between cultivated and wild collected plants is really species specific. In some cases there is little difference; in other cases there are very clear morphological differences. In some cases, the root shape is different. In others, the chemical composition is different. So, when you bring something into cultivation, and you intend to use that plant in the same ways it’s traditionally used when it’s wild collected, you have to determine that it is still the same medicine. It may well be the same genus and species but will it have the same properties? It is incumbent upon the cultivators to determine that they’re cultivating in a way that is closely comparable to its natural habitat and in a similar range of biodiversity so that the plant is likely to develop the same characteristics.

Controls Needed Once You Leave the Garden

Ann: Listening to you speak, it is clear how incredibly complex a process it is to take plants growing around the world and trade them on the international market. Can you talk a bit about what is involved in harvesting plants and selling them globally?

Josef: If one is knowledgeable about plants and is growing their own plants or collecting their own plants in their local area and making their own plant medicines, that’s one thing. But once you leave the garden so to speak, and you start to produce at a commercial scale to sell to other individuals or clinicians or companies to make products, then a number of new critical control points come into place, because an herb may change hands many times before it reaches the final person who will use it.

If an herb is being wild-collected in the Himalayas, it may change hands twenty times before it leaves India or China on its way to Europe or North America and then it may change hands a few more times before it gets into a final form.

So every step along the way tests need to be done to show that contamination hasn’t happened, adulteration hasn’t happened, and loss of quality hasn’t happened, so that you can reasonably expect the desired results from the use of the plant. Without these checks, the obvious results can be: adulteration, mix-ups, wrong identification, wrong handling, and damage of quality.

Ann: Is it possible to trace a particular plant through this chain?

Josef: Because we [Traditional Medicinals] work under certifications that require transparency, we actually can trace back to the source point of the herbs. Documentation ensuring transparency is required for organic certification, [as well as FairWild, this interview was conducted before the FW standard was implemented], and for other social, religious, and other certifications and so in these systems, the journey of the plant is well documented.

In many other cases, that isn’t the situation. I just read an article where a buyer from a company said, ‘Well, that herb is just wild-collected, we don’t really know how it’s collected, by whom or where, it’s just wild-collected.” And that can be the case, it can be that it’s almost impossible to find where it came from because it changed hands so many times.


Ann: So certification is one way of monitoring the trade. Can you talk about what else is important? Besides the obvious social benefits, how important is it to engage with the people gathering the plant, in terms of what you end up in quality?

Josef: The importance of relationships with the wild crafters cannot be underestimated.

From my point of view, you cannot have a sustainable supply without relationship, that’s the first thing.

If there’s a problem, you know who to talk to. And even if you’re doing business with someone in the middle who has the direct relationship with the wild crafter, if you have transparency and good relationships, you can solve the problem.

Sustainability and Herbal Medicine

But sustainability is not just ecological. There is social sustainability and economic sustainability as well. For us, it is very important and it all contributes to quality. Each time you visit a wild collection site and observe a collection – this is something that we do – you learn a lot. And you build trust. You have to have trust. If everybody is getting a fair shake throughout this then over the years you can trouble shoot any of the problems that come up.

All bets are off if a company were to price buy, if they were to buy ingredients from one supplier this year, another supplier next year as the prices fluctuate. You’ll never develop relationships and without relationships you will never have consistent quality. I don’t think you can prove sustainability in a model like that.

Ann: I understand the ways that social and ecological sustainability is important overall – are there also specific ways sustainability impacts the medicines eventually made from these plants?

Josef: I believe that sustainability at all levels does improve the quality of the medicine and has an impact on the medicine. This may be a bit esoteric, but I personally believe that every person who comes into contact with the plants from the wild collection all the way through the post harvest handling and shipping to the final users has an impact on the quality of the medicine, in terms of it’s life force.

I think that if people are earning a fair price for the herbs they wild collect or farm, they are far more likely to follow the quidelines for good agriculture and collection practices and for verifying sustainability, then if they’re not getting a fair price for their work.

If your children are hungry and you’re getting paid daily and collection of plants is your entire household income – this is the case in many places in the world – you may be tempted to cut corners. In the old days, I remember opening sacks of certain herbs that came from certain countries and always weighing out the amount of rocks that were in each sack. I found out the amount of rocks always weighed exactly the same. That’s called economic adulteration because perhaps they don’t believe they’re getting enough for what they’re selling. So if you take care of that right up front you improve the quality all the way around.

We need to continue to build an awareness about where the herbs come from, about the people, and the relationship between the people and the plants. It is very important to keep the relationships going, not only for the quality of the plants, but also so that we can communicate the importance of the people on the ground who are collecting the plants and growing the plants. It is eye-opening to hear stories about where the plants are from and who is growing and collecting them. These stories draw people into the world of using plants.

Paying wild collectors well is a key to ensuring high quality herbs.

Recording receipt and payment for wild-collected plants at Runo, in NE Poland.