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Herbs in the global marketplace: an exclusive interview with herbalist David Hoffmann.

Medical herbalist David Hoffmann has been a political activist for many years. In 1983, as a Green Party candidate in Wales, he stood for election to a seat in the UK Parliament. Hoffmann was a founding member and past president of the American Herbalists Guild and is a board member of the American Botanical Council and United Plant Savers. He has published 17 books, teaches at the California School of Herbal Studies in northern California, and is a visiting faculty member of Bastyr University in Washington State.

A Fellow of Britain's National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Hoffmann has been a leader in the debate about the ecological impact of the increasing demand for herbal products in the expanding global herb marketplace. Patricia Kyritsi Howell spoke with David by phone at his office in northern California.

NLJ: Along with the idea of supporting local growers and good agricultural practices, the organic food movement emphasizes the importance of buying locally grown foods instead of those shipped from other parts of the world. Do the same issues apply when buying herbs and herbal products?

Hoffmann: Absolutely. We must empower everyone to think of themselves as regional herbalists when choosing herbs. A good regional herbalist is most concerned with using the plants that grow nearby, hopefully plants that they know and have a relationship with. This is the heart of herbalism and the thing during the 60's that set the herbal renaissance in motion. It was a wonderful time, when people experienced insight into the spirit of the garden and really felt the presence of Gaia, the Earth, as a living conscious being. We all ran out and hugged the trees!

Today, this passion for the plants has been almost completely co-opted by big business. Herb companies have taken our vision of healing with herbs and made it into just another commodity. Instead of concentrating on the intention that went into growing and harvesting the plant, or on the need to walk lightly in every way possible whenever we choose herbs, now it all comes down to the scientific claims that can legally be printed onto labels. The pressures of the corporate global market completely distort the essence of herbalism; I don't think anyone can disagree with this. Selling herbs has become another revenue stream for capitalists.

NLJ: And you are suggesting that regional herbalism, the practice of primarily relying on plants growing in your own bioregion, is the way to support sustainable herbalism?

Hoffmann: Yes. It makes no sense for a mother with a sick baby to buy an imported herbal medicine to heal her child if the herbs were harvested or farmed in a way that disrupts the ecology of another part of the world. When you put your herb dollars into the local, organically grown marketplace and not into the corporate marketplace where "supplements" are sold, you are making a big difference and at the same time you are naturally becoming part of an ecological and economic solution.

Unfortunately, its difficult to practice completely regional herbalism, because in North America we don't yet have enough herb growers and producers doing things on a small scale. The FDA regulations and other laws of the United States force small companies into becoming big companies in order to meet government manufacturing and growing requirements. And it is difficult to find a bank to help.

NLJ: What can herb consumers do to support local businesses and contribute to plant conservation? Do our buying habits really make a difference?

Hoffmann: First, we need to get beyond thinking of herbs as something we consume. When we see ourselves as consumers we don't feel empowered, and we are certainly not thinking about how we relate to herbs as a healing gift of nature. Remember that the herb industry doesn't want us to think about herb conservation or our relationships with plants, or the Earth. The corporate herb salespeople are only interested in getting you to consume their products.

We need to educate everyone about the importance of buying products that are green in some way to begin with and that hold onto their greenness all the way to you. Of course, that whole idea is being abused by the multinational corporations. We need to search for local herb businesses to buy from as well as to put our herb dollars into organically grown and fair-trade products. And we have to remember that price is no indication of quality. Americans have really fallen into the capitalist trap that says expensive is better.

Ideally, I would like to see everyone who uses herbal medicines feel some kind of relationship with the plants, but I really don't know how you would make that happen. For at least forty years I have been asking myself how we can get people to change their perception of medicine. What I am really suggesting is something bigger than only changing our buying habits. I'm extending an invitation to everyone to join the debate about how we structure our society.

NLJ: Is it even possible to support sustainable herbalism using plants that were harvested or grown in other parts of the world?

Hoffmann: A year ago, I would have said that it is not possible to use herbs from outside a given bioregion without raising sustainability issues. But now, after working with people in the Medicinal Plant Specialist Group under the IUCN (World Conservation Union), I am seeing things a little differently. While I think there are ways that using fair trade and organic growing practices can work, few companies are willing to go to the trouble to get their herbs in this way.

Though I would describe myself as an anti-corporate person, I do acknowledge that there are herb companies who are using fair trade policies to establish good relationships with farmers and supporting good agricultural practices. These companies are setting up viable small-scale distribution networks in places like Russia and Guatemala. Today, I can say that it is possible, in a sustainable way, to get herbs that only grow in other parts of the world. However, we are still left to deal with the problem of the high cost of resources needed to transport these crops. I don't know how this can ever be resolved.

NLJ: Where can we find reliable information on the conservation status of individual herbs?

Hoffmann: In the United States, I think the United Plant Savers is going about monitoring the status of medicinal plants in the right way. They assess how threatened individual native plants are, based on environmental information gathered in different parts of the country. United Plants Savers maintain up-to-date lists of "At Risk" or "To Watch" plants on their website at

These lists are helpful, but I consider all medicinal herbs on the commercial market to be threatened. When we get caught up in a debate about how threatened an individual plant is, we fail to recognize that capitalism has put all natural resources in a state of planetary peril. If you use purely economic criteria for deciding how threatened a plant is, then you miss the point. Once you assume that all plants are in trouble, you don't even consider using certain wild plants unless they are locally abundant. For me, the only choice that makes sense is the use of organically grown herbs.

NLJ: Looking into herbalism's future, what would you like to see happen to protect herbs?

Hoffmann: We all need to work together, building bridges that connect the people in each local community who grow the plants with those who make the medicines, those who work in the clinics and those who teach the classes. I think herbalists must be a human voice for the green, communicating the joy of plants as something that heals as it nurtures, and that illuminates what we are and what we could be.

Patricia Kyritsi Howell, Registered Herbalist (AHG), is the author of Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians (2006). She serves as Chair of the Atlanta Botanical Garden's annual Southern Medicinal Plants Symposium, November 2 to 4, 2006, where David Hoffmann will be the keynote speaker. Find out more about the Symposium at
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Author:Howell, Patricia Kyritsi
Publication:New Life Journal
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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