Sustainability. A much used word these days, it is generally defined as living in a way that meets the present generation’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their’s. The Maori word Kaitiakitanga, is a better term however. Kaitiakitanga is based on the deeper concept that people are all closely connected to and part of the land and nature, and puts the onus of guardianship and protection on all of us to care for all aspects of our environment.

Something that most consumers of natural health products don’t know or think enough about, is where the plants that provide the raw materials for these products, actually come from.

Tea and coffee drinkers increasingly take an interest in the country of origin, the plantation business model (profit-sharing or not), Fairtrade and organic or non-organic status of the leaves or beans that produce their daily drinks. This is because more of us are now making the connections between sustainability, ethics, quality and health. Not just our own health, but that of other people and the environment.

What few people realise is that global medicinal herb trading is similar to that for other commodities, in that most medicinal herbs procured globally come from people living in rural communities in countries where wage expectations are relatively low. As with commodity crops such as tea, coffee, cocoa and cotton, the international herb and spice trade and supply chain is driven largely by the abilities of those in the final rather than earlier stages of the supply chain to make a profit.

As a teenager, I was emotionally moved and became resolved to try and help make the world a better place, after reading “How the Other Half Dies”, by Susan George. Susan’s 1976 book, provided startling information about Third World poverty, underdevelopment and debt, and the contribution of corporate greed and politics to a world in which the gap between wealthy and poor countries, is far too wide.

The issues raised in the book are even more pertinent today, with the additional onset of Climate Change due to human practices, beginning to majorly impact our ability to produce enough food and ensure people – particularly in poorer countries – have access to healthy food and medicines.

Plants are used as the primary form of medicine by around 80% of the world’s population, but the over-influence of price on procurement practices adopted by most companies, means that quality and Kaitiakitanga are all too often compromised. This affects the likelihood that natural health products consumed by end users are in fact therapeutic, rather than subtherapeutic or contaminated.

Product parameters such as the plant part and extract type, the amount used and dose recommendations made, obviously have a significant impact on why some herbal medicines work and others don’t. However, where plants come from and how they are handled along the way, can also have significant impacts on finished product quality and efficacy.

There are numerous variables and stages involved in medicinal herb supply chains, and all of these are important. If the processes in place for these are good, in that people are receiving a living wage and paying a high level of care and attention to each stage (including growing, harvesting, washing, drying or storing the raw plant materials), the finished product will more likely be good.

Unfortunately there are a lot of unscrupulous practices that sometimes take place within the herb industry–some of it intentional, some of it not. These include adulteration, incorrect species identification, whether workers have washed their hands or have access to clean water, what the collection bags were previously used for, whether the plants were harvested in the rain or sun, and processed quickly or left in a pile in a tarp for a few days until workers had time to process them. Programmes to control use of agrichemicals are also either limited or non-existent in most poorer countries.

Small-scale farmers and workers involved in the majority of medicinal herb production are amongst the most marginalized groups globally. Through Fairtrade people can lift themselves out of poverty to maintain successful livelihoods. Also, by getting more of the herbs we use grown locally, and supporting communities and companies who are trying to build capabilities and provide meaningful jobs in this sector to our own lower socio-economic communities, is a powerful ethical and quality-driven approach, which promotes Kaitiakitanga.

Quality and Ethics are intrinsically linked, just as Quality and Efficacy are. Through prioritisation of ethical behaviours, all of the people involved in supply become motivated and concerned with quality. And the natural health products we take, are then more likely to genuinely promote both personal wellness, and that of the planet and its future.