Who Grows Your Herbs?
We are now becoming aware how important it is to know where our food comes from, how far it travels to reach us, and why buying locally grown products is better for us and the environment. But what about our herbs and teas? We tend to think that buying herbs and herbal teas is an inherently healthy and eco-friendly choice. However, commercial herbs are just like any other commodity and the bottom line is often the motivating factor behind the choices corporate herb companies make. So we must also begin to ask ourselves: where do my herbs come from?
Quality is Everything
When it comes to herbs, quality is everything. If the biochemical compounds in the herbs are damaged during processing and transport or if the herbs are contaminated with toxins, they will do little for your health and could actually contribute to adverse health effects in the long run. Currently, there is little oversight or quality control in the conventional herb supply chain, but few consumers are aware of these problems when shopping for their herbs.
That's why writer and anthropologist Ann Armbrecht of the Sustainable Herb Project spent months researching the complex, convoluted herb supply chain. In trying to trace herbs from harvest to shelf, Armbrecht uncovered some startling details about the process, which she shares in her forthcoming book From Seed to Shelf: Following Herbs Through the Supply Chain. During her research, she discovered that conventional herbs change hands an average of 15 times before they reach consumers. She observed farmers using all manner of harvest vessels including old concrete bags and saw workers harvesting herbs from polluted areas. She found farmers drying herbs on the ground in the sun, where UV rays zap potent volatile oils from the plants while animals can freely roam across them, and she saw herb manufacturers storing bags of dried herbs uncovered, leaving them exposed to moisture, dust and rodents.
Herbs treated in such a manner will lose much of their volatile oils, lack potency and flavor, and may be unsafe to consume. Though few tests have been done to check herbs for contamination, those conducted thus far have revealed that some herbs contain unsafe levels of pesticide residue even on organic herbs. Some of these herbs come from areas where chemicals like DDT are still allowed. For more on this, check out this video from the Sustainable Herbs Project. On the processing end, some manufacturers also use harmful chemicals to extract compounds from herbs.
In addition to these concerns about herb quality, Ambrecht’s research shows the environmental impact of corporate herb production. Organic and commercial herbs often travel thousands of miles and change hands a dozen or more times before they make it to the shelf. Many companies import herbs to the US from a long list of countries overseas and during this process, they can travel back and forth through several countries from grower to trader to processor to manufacturer to exporter to importer to retailer. Consider all of the fuel required to transport herbs so many times over such great distance, and you can see the reason that this unsustainable manner of herb production is problematic for the environment. Some large scale manufacturers also rely on wood to fuel their operations and are accelerating the process of deforestation in vulnerable areas.
What Can You Do?
Not all herbs are created equal. We must put the same effort into learning where our herbs come from as we have been for food. Quality is of the utmost importance. Buying organic and fairly traded herbs is a step in the right direction. These herbs are at least held to standards by a certifying body and farmers were paid a living wage. Buying locally grown herbs ensures that the herbs do not have far to travel and chances are, they are significantly fresher and more potent than herbs which have been imported. You may even be able to visit the very farm from which they have been harvested! So, next time you are shopping for an herbal product, make sure you ask yourself: where have these herbs come from?