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Author Topic: The Herb Industry  (Read 3106 times)
Ingrid Naiman
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« on: July 29, 2008, 03:50:08 PM »

Without sounding like I have the final word, I would like to discuss a few points others might not know about, but there are several members of this forum with other expertise so let's hope they add significantly to what I am kicking off here.

To an innocent consumer, it may seem like there is no cost involved in wildcrafting an herb.  Just so we have our terminology down pat, let me suggest that a wildcrafted medicinal plant is one that exists in Nature without the "help" of humans.  Among the many herbs used in my formulas, quite a number of them are wildcrafted, including some of the most important ones used in alternative cancer treatment:  bloodroot, goldenseal, and Boswellia serrata to name a few.  Any wildcrafted herb that becomes too popular is at risk of becoming endangered.  Lady's slipper is an excellent example of this but one that we still use to an extent is guaiacum, but we only use pieces of wood that are increasingly hard to source.

So, here we have an excellent example of the need for trusteeship and perhaps even for considering that one of the charitable projects the co-op could consider is habitat adoption.  This is being carried on in the Rain Forest, but we need it absolutely everywhere on the Planet and on a very large scale.

The persons who wildcraft require some training so the difference between a conscious wildcrafter and bioprospector pirate is whether he or she leaves anything for the next harvest.  Hoodia is a wonderful example of bioprospecting and what can happen when someone finds a way to make a fortune using indigenous intellectual property and lands that are perhaps unprotected from those who exploit.

Some herbs that are usually wildcrafted can be cultivated.  Certainly, ginseng is one that has fit this description for some time, but Frontier Natural Products Co-op has been cultivating goldenseal for some years now and the University of North Carolina has a bloodroot program.  Many other hugely dedicated people have been working on plant preservation for decades so networking with these people ought to be an important priority for us.

Cultivators are people who grow plants for their own use and sale through local farmer's markets, cooperatives, and even big international markets.  A small grower develops a network of buyers who process the herbs into medicines and the risks are often shared.  For instance, a grower might be digging up his last echinacea before the first hard freeze and he makes a phone call to a processing lab asking if the lab is in a position to buy this harvest.  In such a case, the lab and grower usually have had an ongoing relationship based on shared plant ethics, but some echinacea could end up in larger markets where little or nothing is known about the growing conditions or the plant itself might not even have been identified properly.  Trust me, you are not always getting what it says on the label.

Labs work with fresh or dried herbs (usually both) and there are countless different end uses and therefore processing methods.  The finished product has "value added" meaning that those who made the plant into medicine have increased the value of the plant and extended the "life" of the plant which is an interesting concept.  If you think of a flower that wilts, it had a day or week of glory and then its fragrance and beauty fade, but if it is distilled or used in a flower essence, its impact on our senses and health has been significantly extended, especially if our appreciation leads us to care more for the plants.  If you read "The Botany of Desire," you will understand this concept in everything from the mundane potato to the most psychologically stimulating plants.  Whether or not we give much thought to this, we are always in a profound relationship to plants so extending their expression is of interest to us and probably also to them, even if the only thing the plants get out of the bargain is that we love them enough to cultivate them.

Now, we come to the point in the chain in which there are sometimes many middlemen and many mark-ups. The worst part of the industry is probably essential oils because there could be countless middlemen and people who adulterate the product to stretch it and improve their bottom lines.  Here is a place where knowing your sources pays off royally in terms of cost and confidence.  My purpose in bringing this up is that many have perceived the co-op as having traffic moving both directions, not just a retail store but also a farm and processing plant. 

If you study some of the players, you will see that this is precisely what many have done.  In some cases, one contracts with growers in India or Costa Rica or Hawaii or Peru or wherever to accept a certain amount of raw herb at specified intervals.  This has a lot of mutual benefits because the farmer can safely grow the crops desired if he is sure of a market for them, and the lab has the benefit of long-term relationships characterized by trust and win-win agreements.  Practically speaking, it is not always possible to source everything you need in this kind of market and when there are borders, someone takes on the additional burden of importing, customs clearance, and quality assurance testing.  Ideally, we would try to reduce pressure on the environment by limiting transport costs as much as possible, but many of us have developed luxurious tastes for exotic plants that do not grow everywhere.  The now ubiquitous goji might be an example of how love for something from Mongolia forces us to find new habitats.  If we study the history of the wine industry, we will see that risky as this sometimes is, it is also insurance because trhe French wine industry was rebuilt by imports from growers in the New World.

I don't want to go on and on and on, but there is a lot to consider here and quality is the most important issue.  So, going back to the example of echinacea, one has fresh echinacea that tingles on the tongue and worthless dried out saw dust that probably has no medicinal value at all.  We also have real echinacea and bogus echinacea and the poor consumer rarely knows the difference.  So, the primary task of a co-op is to make sure that products carried meet the highest standards of herbal medicine making.  If this is the case, the cost is always going to reflect the value added by those who guarantee the best end result through their careful cultivating, harvesting, processing, and value added.
« Last Edit: July 31, 2008, 02:46:42 AM by Ingrid Naiman » Logged
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