Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain

Following medicinal plants through the supply chain, an interview with Ann Armbrecht of the Sustainable Herbs Project

To make visible what the economy has rendered invisible: Following herbs through the supply chain with Ann Armbrecht 

An Interview with Anne de Courtenay

Anne de Courtenay generously included an extensive interview with me about our work following herbs through the supply chain in the Journal of the American Herbalist Guild which should be available for free on the AHG site in the future. I wanted to include this one excerpt from the interview about my vision for the Sustainable Herbs Project. 

Anne de Courtenay: As an anthropologist whose work has set out to change the world, what is your ultimate goal in the creation of the Sustainable Herbs Project?

Ann Armbrecht: Years ago, Wendell Berry spoke about how we as a culture are suffering from a crisis of the imagination. He said, “We can’t see the forests that are clear cut to build the tables in our homes; the lakes being drained to fill our bathtubs. We can’t see the moral and ecological consequences of our ways of living and not seeing those consequences only makes it easier to continue living as we do.”

Around the same time Berry spoke those words, I was teaching my first class in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth. As a final project, I had my students follow one object from source to finished product. This was in the late 1990s, before there was such a focus on following products through the supply chain. The last day in class, each student presented what they had discovered. We were all silent as we listened to story after story about the environmental and social impacts caused by producing the objects we used everyday: pencils, keys, copying paper. Hearing all of that information at once was paralyzing. And yet it also gave us the information we needed to begin to try to do things differently.

Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain an Interview with Ann Armbrecht of the Sustainable Herbs Project

Carrying weeds from a field of comfrey in southern Bulgaria. Photo by Willow Forbes.

That’s a round-about way of answering your question, but my biggest goal is to help us re-connect with the people and places on the other sides of the objects we consume. To make visible what the economy has rendered invisible. I think herbal medicine is an especially important place to begin.

I think a lot about the connections between human and environmental health, how we can’t be well until the planet is well. And yet for the most part, the natural health movement, herbalism included, has taken a very personal, individual approach to promoting natural medicine.

We want our medicines to be free of pesticides and heavy metals, but what about choosing medicines that free the whole planet of pesticides and heavy metals? What about thinking about how our healthcare purchases help create a healthier planet?

I think herbal medicine should be leading in this. It’s hard. It’s a huge, huge task. But it has to be done. And who better to do it than the herbal community?

I want the herb community to walk our talk. And that starts with knowing a lot more about where our herbs are from and how and by whom our remedies are made. So that’s my immediate goal. And we’ll see about the rest!

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