Salal Pickers
"Multi-Billion Dollar Toes"
The term "wildcrafting" refers specifically to the wild-harvesting of plants that are made into herbal medicinals-tinctures, poultices, infusions and other applications. Wildcrafted and cultivated herbs are used by an ever-growing subculture of health care, sometimes in lieu of Western medicine. Not everyone is happy about it.
As Ed Smith, founder of Herb Pharm in Williams, Ore. says in the documentary, Harvesting the Wild: "We're stepping on multibillion-dollar toes." He is referring to the pharmaceutical industry, makers of chemical medicines that are usually available by prescription. Smith is one of many manufacturers, huge-for-the-herb-business-yet -tiny-for-multinational-corporations, of herbal dietary supplements. Herb Pharm and similar suppliers are making a small but ever-increasing dent in an industry that is not interested in competition. The conflict has been characterized as David-versus-Goliath by some, guerilla warfare by others.
Recent, heated controversy about natural substances like kava (used to treat anxiety) is indicative of the gloves-off struggle. Whereas herbal-critics blame kava for liver damage and accuse the people who sell it of being "quacks" and "snake-oil merchants," Smith has another interpretation.
"Kava, an herb that has been used for 3,000 years, is all of a sudden getting a lot of bad press," he says, "because there are all these studies that show that it works better than most anti-depressants, it's about ten times cheaper, it doesn't have any of the side effects. So the pharmaceutical medicinal establishment, for lack of a better word, is really challenged by that, and so their politics come into the picture."
Some herbalists suggest that the federal government is in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry, pushing approval of patented drugs like Viagra while holding back herbal products like comfrey. In 2001, $89 million was directed toward the study of herbal medicines, a sliver of the National Institute of Health's multibillion-dollar pie.
Until 1994, herbal medicine was practically a back-alley industry, unable to reach the average consumer. The reason: the Federal Drug Administration required testing of all medicinal agents, yet no one who could afford to test herbal compounds was willing to do so. As the average consumer became more interested in "alternative" medicine (naturopathic, chiropractic and Eastern traditions including acupuncture), the demand for herbal medicines grew. In response, Congress adopted legislation that classifies herbal medicine as "dietary supplements." Herbal manufacturers were forced to back off the claim of their products being "medicine," but the FDA drug-testing noose was loosened. Since then, the number of herbal dietary supplements available over-the-counter, everywhere from health-food stores to discount big-box retailers, has increased exponentially. A 2000 study in Prevention magazine estimated that 158 million consumers used dietary supplements, 22.8 million of whom were doing so in lieu of a prescription medication.
Modern medicine is only a hundred years old. It has grown with the Western focus on crisis intervention, veering away from centuries-old traditions of prevention and subtle manipulation. Consider the difference between the herb Echinacea, used as an immune-system booster, and penicillin, an antibiotic. Both traditions have relied heavily upon trial-and-error, with Western medicine-perhaps a reflection of its industrialized, market-based and empirical era-preferring the aesthetic of controlled, clinical trials to kitchen-table experiments and hearsay.
Defenders of the pharmaceutical industry maintain that they are more environmentally and socially responsible than the herbal industry. They point out that wildcrafters may bring the extinction of rare and endangered plant species, and that they take advantage of other people to make a profit. "The social impacts [sic] of traditional medicine can be alarming," states Developing Ideas Digest, an on-line trend-watch magazine, "when the traditional medicinal knowledge of indigenous peoples is exploited without a fair sharing of commercial gains."
The biggest difference between Western and herbal traditions is not the facts, but the spin on the facts. For example, both sides call their medicine "safer." Sixty to 80 percent of the world's population is estimated to use herbal medicine as its primary form of health care. Herbalists quote this to demonstrate that their way is superior. Promoters of Western medicine claim that the entire world would use pharmaceuticals if they had access to them.
There is even spin on the preceding phrase, "have access." What this really means is "could afford." Multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies have largely ignored herbal medicines because there's relatively little money to make. Pharmaceutical companies create "designer" drugs: medications (often chemical copies of herbal compounds) that they patent and control exclusively. The high price of these drugs fuels research on new drugs, marketing campaigns and profits (most pharmaceutical companies have stockholders). This economic cycle is not conducive to studying the potential use of St. John's wort beyond its traditional use as an anti-depressant, for example, because no one can patent an herb.
"In the United States I think it costs around $150 million to bring a new drug on the market," says Smith (other estimates go as high as $250 million). "I wouldn't spend ten years and $150 million [unless I were] assured that I could get my money back."
Herbalists seem content to provide herbal "dietary supplements" without having million-dollar research programs, without spending millions on advertising and lobbying efforts, and without making millions of dollars themselves. For Smith, herbal medicine is a power-to-the people type of enterprise. "The biggest herb consumers are your left-wing, environmentalist, tree-hugging types and your conservative, right-wing people like Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists. They were in it before the herbal renaissance [of the 1970s]," he says. "The right and the left meet in terms of medicinal liberty."
BACK TO: From Mountain to Market >>