Medicinal Herbs: Setting the Context

Let’s look at the medicinal herb trade over the long view.  Before recorded history, people everywhere in the world used plants for healing illnesses and to treat injuries. This became very sophisticated knowledge in shamanic cultures and in the many schools of herbal medicine which evolved over thousands of years. Many herbal lineages extended unbroken up until the pharmaceutical age which began in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Pharmaceuticals largely supplanted herbal medicine in industrialized cultures after World War II. Herbal pockets continued in the Appalachians, Hispanic, Native American and immigrant cultures. Herbs have been largely dismissed during the pharmaceutical era even though 20 to 40% of pharmaceuticals are still prepared using plant extracts. The ongoing, worldwide attack on indigenous cultures (for 500 years plus now) continues to disrupt the continuity of traditional knowledge, including herbal knowledge. Even so, over half of humanity still relies heavily on herbal medicine knowledge passed on down through the ages.

The pharmaceutical industry is not all that old. The first synthetic drug, chloral hydrate, was discovered in 1869. The first pharmaceutical drug to make it big was aspirin in 1899.  It wasn’t really until after World War II and the penicillins became available to the public that pharmaceuticals dominated American medicine chests. The pharmaceutical industry certainly doesn’t seem to like the idea of losing market share to herbal medicine. The interlocking directorships of big pharma are connected to big media and to government agencies through the so-called “revolving door” exchange of business executives and government bureaucrats.

In the United States, the 1960s and 70s saw a rebirth in the herbal movement with notables likes Rosemary Gladstar, David Winston, David Hoffman, Michael Moore, Susan Weed, Christopher Hobbs, and many more. The recent film, Numen, helps capture the evolution of this grassroots movement.

The herbal movement  in the US has come a long way in the last 50 years. Out of this herbal movement has grown a new US herbal industry offering herbal products. The worldwide herbal industry is vast and includes the herbs which go into manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs by the big multi-nationals. The supply chains for this vast world trade in medicinal herbs reach into the remotest regions of the globe including the Pacific Northwest. Cascara sagrada bark (Rhamnus purshiana) and Oregon-grape root (Mahonia species) have been shipped out of the Northwest by the ton throughout the last 150 years. The Northwest is one of the major regional producers of herbs in the US.

Today’s herbal movement fosters increasing exchange between different herbal traditions, modern and ancient, Western and Eastern, science and spirit. Many herbalists combine several different modalities in their practice. Herbalists are part of teams at natural health clinics and even occasionally as hospital staff. There is a lot of blending going on in the herbal movement as well as a lot of new evolutions in herbal medicine. Witness the many dozens of herbal schools now operating.

Forty-one percent of Americans use some form of alternative health care and the numbers are growing. The US and Canada have a growing population of naturopathic medical practitioners, herbalists, Chinese medicine practitioners, and Ayurvedic practitioners. The Northwest is especially rich in this regard. These herb professions have relied to a large extent on imported dried herbs, some of questionable age and quality. A large proportion of the herbs used in the United States are imported from around the world especially Eastern Europe, China, India, Egypt, etc. (see list on my Herb Blog on this site). Many of these herbs could be grown in the Pacific Northwest. Import substitution will be an aspect of the conference.

Here we are going into 2016.  Medicinal herbs are becoming ever more popular in western, industrialized cultures. There are all sizes of herb companies and herb farms out there. How many herb farms are there in the Northwest? No one knows for sure, but here are my estimates. The names of large, successful and well-known herb farms in the Northwest can be counted on two hands. They all rose from humble beginnings. In addition there are dozens of small-scale herb farms which have started in the last ten years. Hundreds of people grow just a small sideline of herbs to other farming or gardening enterprises. Also many herbalists and some naturopaths grow herbs to use in their practices.  Besides all of these, there are thousands of people who grow a few herbs in the garden for family use. Herbalism is still a grass-roots movement at all levels of this herb grower continuum. This conference will have something for people at all of these scales, although it is primarily designed for commercial growers and herb trade companies.  I have compiled a list of Northwest herb farms  and posted it on this website.

The demand for locally grown medicinal products is set to skyrocket as a number of forces converge: a rise in health consciousness, the demand for locally-produced goods, the security imperative in a volatile world, higher unemployment rates so more people are priced out of the conventional medical system, worries about the safety, efficacy and side-affects of pharmaceuticals, and, to a certain extent, a moral imperative.

The Northwest herb industry has many elements. Large farms, small farms, specialty nurseries, seed companies, wholesalers (notably Mountain Rose Herbs), tincture and herbal product companies, herb stores, other retail outlets, herbalists of all sorts including Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the consumers. Some herbs and herbal products are exported out of the region and many herbs and products are imported. This conference will help elucidate the current state of the Northwest herb industry.

The natural trajectory is for the herbal movement to continue to grow though it is having to contend with a crackdown by the dominant paradigm. Coalition building would be a good thing.