The Dark Side of the Herbal Industry

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Many herbs are grown as a monoculture on large, corporate farms which has detrimental effects on soil quality and biodiversity and can be incredibly resource-intensive.

For most people, the idea of herbal medicine conjures images of a mortar and pestle, amber bottles, and sunny permaculture farms like the ones illustrated on the back of tea packages. These images are constructed as part of an enduring belief that the herbal industry is natural, eco-friendly, and socially sustainable due to its association with the green world of plants. However, the herbal industry is still an industry, one that exists within capitalism and is currently growing very quickly without a lot of regulation. While it can be especially tempting to read the back of the beautiful bottles lining the shelves of health food stores and assume that the most ideal growing and working conditions went into making the products, there are many ethical and environmental issues associated with the mass manufacturing and harvesting of herbs. 

For most people, the idea of herbal medicine conjures images of a mortar and pestle. However, the herbal industry is still an industry that exists within capitalism and is currently growing very quickly without a lot of regulation.

Recognizing and trying to remediate the dissonance between the values of herbal medicine and the realities of global supply chains is the specialty of Ann Armbrecht, an anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) and director of the Sustainable Herbs Program. In a recent episode entitled “On Sacredness in Supply Chains” on the podcast For the Wild, Armbrecht discussed the contradiction that exists between plants being revered as living and healing entities at the point at which they are being ingested or used, while simultaneously being disregarded and treated as commodities and disconnected inanimate objects within supply chains. This discrepancy fosters a transactional relationship based on the western desire for a silver bullet cure to fix all ailments, rather than a reciprocal one based on mutual care and respect. “As I dove in more, I discovered that to most people herbal medicine is not that invitation into relationship with the aliveness of the world,” said Armbrecht on the podcast. “It’s a product on a shelf in the grocery store and the supplement aisle.” 

This transactional relationship can obscure the labor and resources that go into growing the plants that are used in herbal products. An unbelievable amount of plants are required to fill the seemingly endless bottles of essential oils at the store — it takes 60 flowers to make just one drop of rose essential oil — and to meet this need, many of these plants are grown as a monoculture on large, corporate farms.  Monoculture agriculture has detrimental effects on soil quality and biodiversity and can be incredibly resource-intensive. Forests and arable lands are oftentimes converted to create these farms and pesticide usage is also common in order to increase yield and productivity.

While wild harvesting is sometimes proposed as a more environmentally friendly option for sourcing herbs, the scale of demand is so large that it can often lead to overharvesting. One in five plants is believed to be threatened by overharvesting and habitat loss, and some common plants used in herbal products are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and sandalwood (Santalum album). While a commonly accepted rule is that no more than 10 percent of any wild plant should be harvested during a single session, this practice is hard to regulate and not always followed by companies or individuals. 

This is exemplified by white sage (Salvia Apiana), as its increased popularity in recent years has led to metric tons of it being wild harvested and poached from its only native region in Southern California and northern Baja. This has deep cultural and ecological implications, especially for the Indigenous communities that have long used white sage in sacred ceremonies, despite past colonial efforts to make Indigenous spiritual practices illegal. While wild collection can be beneficial in some cases for ecological, financial, and cultural preservation, it requires a deep awareness and respect that is not often feasible for large herb manufacturers. Climate change and land-use change are also greatly impacting plant resources and biodiversity, making wild harvesting on a commercial scale incredibly difficult. 

In addition to these environmental concerns, there are ethical issues associated with the mass manufacturing of herbs. The rapid growth of the herbal industry has led to increased corporate competition and outsourcing of labor. Many common herbs are grown in Eastern Europe or Asia, and the nature of the global supply network can make it hard for a consumer to know if the farmers are receiving fair wages, a living income, and good working conditions. According to Armbrecht, low wages and access to other opportunities has led many people in younger generations to no longer be interested in the difficult work of harvesting and processing herbs, work that requires significant knowledge, experience, and attention.

Nicole Gagliano is the owner of Wild and Wise, Humboldt’s first herbal CSA, which functions similarly to a vegetable CSA. Gagliano makes use of seasonal and local abundant plants to make her products.

Conditions at every step along the supply chain can determine how much care is given to the plants, which can ultimately determine the potency of the product at the end of the line.  According to Megan Blumenstein, the Project Manager at Sea Goat Farmstand and an herbalist with 10 years of experience working in herb shops, it can be easy to take for granted the integrity of the products. “There’s just kind of that default assumption that because you’re consuming an herbal medicine product that it’s coming from a responsible source,” said Blumenstein. “And that’s not true.” 

Armbrecht summed it up perfectly in an essay for the Sustainable Herbs Program called “Systems Change and the Herb Industry” in which she wrote, “To me the ultimate irony, and not a good one, is that we have systems of medicine (herbal and other) based on the premise that you can poison parts of the system — the water, the soil, the air, humans and non-humans — in some places, in order to produce products used to create wellness for other people in other places.”

There is no simple answer to fix many of these issues, but there are actions that anyone interested in herbal medicine can take. Doing research and making sure to get herbs (especially those that are more rare and endangered)  from responsible sources so as to avoid perpetuating ecological and cultural harm is a good first step. Although not always accessible for small producers or as thorough as one might hope, certifications like Fair for Life and Fairwild can sometimes be helpful. Asking questions to herb companies is another good way to determine if there is any substance behind their claims.

 It can also be useful to consider minimizing the use of products that are incredibly resource intensive, for example opting for using hydrosols more often than essential oils. Developing connections and knowledge of the land and the plants that grow in the backyard can help create more of the reciprocal relationship Armbrecht articulated. This can also be achieved by growing one or two plants at home, as even a small tea garden can flourish in a few small pots. 

  Additionally, there are examples of people in Humboldt who are committed to mitigating some of these issues by utilizing locally grown herbs. Nicole Gagliano is the owner of Wild and Wise, Humboldt’s first herbal CSA, which functions similarly to a vegetable CSA. Gagliano makes use of seasonal and local abundant plants to make her products, sometimes utilizing the bounty found in her neighbors’ yard as inspiration. “Neighbors call me all the time, saying ‘our lemon tree is full, you want to come harvest lemons?’” said Gagliano. “And then that inspires the product that goes in the CSA. So the harvest inspires what I make usually.” 

At Woven Hearts, a medicinal and culinary herb farm located in Mckinleyville, Sophia Steinwachs grows 30 to 40 different species of herbs that are sold at various places around Humboldt, including Sea Goat Farmstand, the co-ops and the farmers market. Steinwachs started Woven Hearts after working in herb shops for many years, with the intention of connecting more deeply with the plants and sharing their medicinal benefits with the community. 

Creating and growing small batch herbal products is no easy feat, especially without lots of extra equipment, machinery or labor. “The amount of time it takes me to process an herb and get it ready to be bagged up, I had no idea it would take so much time,” said Steinwachs. “That’s made me appreciate a small amount of herbs so much more. But it’s also made it difficult to compete with larger herb producers.”

Competing with larger herbal companies can also be made more difficult due to marketing strategies that manufacture products to look like they are from small scale producers. “A customer can’t really tell anymore where things came from, unless they look because everything’s sort of being packaged and made to seem like it’s small business and small batch,” said Gagliano. “I’m in my little apothecary here harvesting the plants, drying them, processing them, infusing them, doing all these extra steps.”

Purchasing products from local makers and growers is only one piece of the puzzle, but the benefits go beyond financially supporting the local community or minimizing the environmental impact of herbs traveling from faraway. The quality of the plants has a significant impact on their healing abilities, and buying them locally increases the potential that they are fresh, seasonal, and were recently processed. “I also believe that the hands-on loving touch to the earth and the plants really does make a big difference in the quality of the product,” said Steinwachs.


  • The Business of Botanicals by Ann Armbrecht
  • For the Wild Podcast: Episode: Ann Armbrecht On Sacredness in Supply Chains (#333)