Ann Armbrecht on the Business of Ethical BotanicalsFeb 28, 2022 ● By April Thompson
photo courtesy of Bryce Youk
Writer and anthropologist Ann Armbrecht explores the relationship between humans and the planet, notably through her work with plants and plant medicine. Her book The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry tells the stories of the people and places behind the global industry of herbal products which are largely invisible to the consumers that spend $9 billion annually on them. Armbrecht is the director of the American Botanical Council Sustainable Herbs Program and is co-producer of the documentary film Numen: The Nature of Plants, inspired by her experience studying herbal medicine with herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Although her current work focuses on the herb industry, she is interested in broader questions about how the purchasing choices everyday citizens make impact the world. Armbrecht is also the author of the memoir Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, based on her time conducting ethnographic research in Nepal and her continued questioning of culture and community back home in the U.S.
What surprised you the most in your journey around the world tracking the herbal supply chain?
I was surprised by the level of mechanization and scale, and the careless way plants were often handled—sometimes stored in open sacks and huge piles, with one type of plant spilling into another without controls for moisture and rodents. But I was also surprised to discover my own naiveté about the supply chain. These were both important realizations to help me come to a more nuanced, realistic assessment of the challenges the different stakeholders face in bringing herbs to market.
What should consumers consider when purchasing herbal products?
Alternative medicine and health care frame wellness as a personal choice, focused on the individual’s health, yet we have a responsibility back to the plants that heal us and the people who care for them. We can’t be well unless the planet is well. By purchasing an herbal product that has been produced in ways that care for the Earth and local communities, we can start to heal the planet and address social inequities.
Purchasing Organic Certified products is a start. Someone I met at Organic India said every time you have a cup of herbal tea that isn’t certified organic, it’s like steeping a cup of pesticides. It doesn’t make any sense to consume something for its medicinal properties that has been made with pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Certified Organic is not a perfect system—no certification is—but it operates as a stand-in for relationships and trust. These herbs change hands up to 15 times to get to a consumer, so there has to be a way to keep a paper trail and ensure product integrity. When consumers ask for Certified Organic, it signals to the marketplace that sustainability matters and helps drive change in the industry.
Seeking out fair trade products is also great when possible. The FairWild certification, for example, works toward ecological, social and economic sustainability in the supply chain of wild-collected products.
What key trends are you seeing in the herbal industry?
There is a trend toward regenerative farming, which focuses on issues like how cultivating plants affects soil and biodiversity. There is also a new focus on social equity for people growing and collecting herbs, as many of them are living on the fringes of society in precarious situations. We are doing case studies to look at details like how the structure of contracts and timing of payments affect smallholder herb farmers so we can make appropriate recommendations and hold companies accountable.
What gives you the most hope about the herbal industry right now?
The people I got to know in my travels are working really hard to take care of the plants and of the communities to bring a sense of ethics, equity and transparency into the system. A lot of money is made at the very end of the value chain and not at the source. Individuals and companies in the industry are working to address these imbalances.
More consumers are asking questions and becoming empowered citizens, and that also gives me hope. When I studied herbal medicine, what was most powerful for me was learning simple ways to take care of myself and my then-1-year-old daughter. Learning to make these simple remedies was deeply empowering. Without that knowledge, it’s easy to be overwhelmed walking through the supplement aisle of the drugstore, not knowing where to begin other than to read labels and try to compare one marketing claim to another. Taking steps to learn more about herbs and where they come from helps people make a shift from consumer to citizen. That level of engagement also brings more meaning and connection, which people are hungering for.
Connect with Washington, D.C., freelance writer April Thompson.