I (Ann) began studying herbal medicine shortly after completing my doctorate based on research on the connections between people and the land in northeastern Nepal. In herbalism I found some of the wisdom I found in Nepal: a quality of respect and restraint in interactions with the environment, a focus on relationship rather than ownership, and a sense of the sacred in interacting with the earth. As an anthropologist, I was interested in how these beliefs were expressed in the very different circumstances of the United States. Unlike rural Nepalese on the margins of the modern world, US herbalists engage with cutting-edge science, draw increasing numbers of students to conferences and classes, and produce herbal products that are increasingly popular. They believe the values of herbal medicine can change the world for the better. I was interested in how this vision and these values were expressed in practice.
As I learned more, especially about the business of herbal medicine, not surprisingly, I began to see discrepancies and contradictions. Herbalists talked about how intention when harvesting plants and preparing remedies was part of the healing power of a plant. Yet few were discussing the challenge of how to source enough plants to meet demand. They emphasized how a practitioner’s relationship with a plant was as important to healing as the constituents of the plant, but then recommended remedies produced no differently from any other commodity on the market.
With filmmaker Terrence Youk, I co-produced Numen: the Nature of Plants, to celebrate the values of herbal medicine and show consumers there is more to herbal medicine than a product on a shelf. I then became interested in exploring the challenges posed by the herb industry more deeply. In what ways does understanding the lives of stakeholders in the herb industry matter? By understanding their stories, can we begin to re-connect relationships the economy has severed? In what ways might this relate to healing? What do concepts like intention and quality control mean down the supply chain? How do different stakeholders negotiate these meanings? And how does any of this impact the quality of the finished product?
I visited several FairWild certified projects in Eastern Europe in the fall of 2015. After returning, I launched a Kickstarter project to raise funds to create the Sustainable Herbs Project. We had an outpouring of support – and as proof that no donation is ever too small, to-date this project has largely been funded by $35 donations!
This site is a work in progress. I have a tremendous amount of information and will continue to add and update the material. I plan to create guided presentations that can easily be shared in community and university settings to educate viewers about the herb industry overall and also about commodity chains and sustainability more broadly. And I am writing a book, Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain to be published in 2019 by Chelsea Green Publishing.
Find out about our future plans and how you can help!