© Kat Morgenstern, September 2003, all rights reserved.
The use of medicinal plants in naturopathic medicine is generally regarded as 'green medicine', a natural alternative to 'chemical medicine'. But how green is herbalism today, really? The health of the planet is in peril due to many factors ranging from socio-political to environmental causes and the web of interrelated issues is certainly complex. Are the proponents of herbalism contributing to the decline of medicinal plant species? The blame for the disappearance of medicinal plants is often laid squarely at the feet of wild-crafters, yet the issue is far more complex and before legislating against the collection of wild species we should examine and address all the issues at stake.
The first thing to remember when it comes to environmental policies is that mother earth knows no boundaries. The web of life connects all of us and global issues impact local issues even far away from their original source, and vice versa. To date scientists still don't know the exact number of species that this biosphere supports. Estimates range from 5 to 15 million, though only 1.5 million have been recorded and described, and far fewer have ever been examined in any detail. What we do know is that we are losing thousands of species at a frightening rate.
The overwhelming contributing factor to the loss of species, both plant and animal, is habitat destruction. Mankind still feels that the planet's resources are there for our taking, that wild lands are worthless unless 'developed' i.e. exploited for their usable resources. Our materialistic political philosophy supports this approach: the economy is only considered healthy if it 'grows', but growth invariably is driven by exploitation. Sustainability is considered an airy-fairy concept of idealists, not realists - despite the fact that it seems obvious that the opposite is true: the planet's resources are not inexhaustible, but finite. Unless we develop strategies to develop them sustainably instead of exploiting them until they have all but disappeared, which by the looks of it, won't be too long. We would do well to remember that nothing exists in isolation and that every strand of the web supports the integrity of the whole: the more strings we pull the more fragile the web becomes.
So, are wild-crafters to blame for the loss of medicinal plant species? Yes and no. First of all, it is important to distinguish between wild-crafters who collect for personal or cottage industry use, and those who collect for commercial use. The impact of the subsistence level wild-crafter is very different to that of the commercial wild-crafter. Unfortunately, the commercial wild-crafter is often at the bottom of the economic scale and has few, if any, other sources of income. They are usually not herbalists but 'hired hands' who are not concerned with healing people or safeguarding a piece of land, but are driven by the simple need to survive, to make enough pennies to put food on the table each day. It is their need to survive that forces them to go out and collect the plants, not their need for medicine. This problem can only be addressed when we are willing to address the issue of poverty and hunger. Exploitation of a work force is a factor in environmental degradation. The commercial enterprises who employ such labourers are merchants who in turn sell their booty at the global market, usually far away from the land of origin, where manufacturers of herbal medicines purchase them and turn them into herbal pills and products that are sold at highly marked up prices on the shelves of supermarket or health food stores. The consumer meanwhile does not think about the origin of their cat's claw remedy or whatever the latest craze might be.
Even more serious are the destructive harvest methods of essential oil producers. The biggest problem here lies in the fact that often tons of plant material are required to distil or extract even small amounts of pure essential oil. Users of essential oils of course feel that the benefits of the oils make them worthwhile nevertheless. This may be true when the source plants are grown specifically for this purpose and thus are grown sustainably, but often they are not. In particular tree species are at risk from the ravenous essential oil market. Trees require many seasons to grow, not just one, and to harvest certain species often implies the destruction of old stands or whole tracts of forest in order to get to the desired species. Unfortunately essential oil producers on the whole have a long way to go before arriving at a practice that could be termed environmentally sound.
Wild-crafters who harvest without ethics are part of this problem too, but thankfully ethics is an issue that is considered and addressed by most wild-crafters who gather plants for their personal use, both in the developed and 'underdeveloped' world. In fact, studies have shown that the environment degrades in correlation to the extend to which people do NOT forage - which translates as, disengagement from the environment increases the alienation people feel from nature, which makes them less caring about it, and less protective of it, leaving it game to developers or whoever else wants to exploit it commercially.
Pollution is also a major contributor to loss of species, not least of all pollution from agrochemicals, including those used abundantly in any suburban environment. Herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers aimed at controlling our environment control it by killing all but 'the desired species' within it. Furthermore, such chemicals are not only harmful to the species they are meant to control but to human, not to mention animal, health as well, though of course studies do not prove this (commercial interests are too powerful to allow proper studies). They are also ineffective in the long run as chemical control of this nature stimulates mutation and thus evolution of super-bugs, super-weeds and super pests, which of course call for ever stronger chemical weapons to combat them, or, as is now promoted, resistant GM species. However - the long-term effect is clear, the arms race is futile. Instead of protecting our perceived vulnerability with ever more potent weapons we should aim at a peace process, which gives each species their space and recognize that in a balanced environment there are no losers.
So, what can we do to help preserve medicinal plant species and halt the environmental deterioration that leads to this tragic loss of species?
WWF 'Living Planet Report' on biodiversity and sustainability: livingplanet2002.pdf
Or the summery: Summary.pdf
Visit the CITES databank for endangered and protected species: http://www.cites.org/
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.