Nature is beautiful in its diversity. Different countries have unique landforms, animals and flora. Before mass transportation was common, ordinary people had to rely on the resources found in their local environments for food and medicine. These included animals, plants, minerals and natural pools of water. Over time, knowledge developed of what was good to eat, what was poisonous, how to prepare things, where to find them, times of year when certain plants were in flower and so forth.
The extensive intelligence about the medicinal qualities of plants found in China is a wonderful of example of how local knowledge and observations of nature have resulted in a human benefit that is now global. You no longer have to live in China, or a particular region of China, to benefit from ancient wisdom about Chinese herbs. Chinese herbs are now widely distributed in many forms – pills, powder and liquid – to consumers from one side of the planet to another, the UK to Australia, and so many places in between.
With a population of 1.34 billion people, although other countries are now cultivating Chinese herbs for use in medicines and teas, it is hard to compete with the low costs of labour in China. There is also a school of thought that suggests the best herbs are produced in their original, indigenous locations. This is the concept of “dao di yao cai” (meaning approximately: “medicinals from authentic production regions”). In China you have whole regions, towns, families, who have produced (or harvested) a single variety of herb – local to that area – for many generations. They have highly specialised knowledge of the ideal conditions and a whole range of factors that support the optimum production and quality of the herb under cultivation. That said, about half of the herbs supplied for use in Chinese herbal medicines are “wild-crafted”, not cultivated.
Chinese medicine practitioners are also very conservative and slow to change in the way they use certain herbs. If the herb is produced in a different region, the practitioners tend to query whether the herb retains it’s original properties, and are therefore less convinced of its usefulness.
Another interesting idea is that illnesses that arise in certain regions are best treated with Chinese herbs that also originate from that region. Another way of stating that is that nature does not create the illness without also providing the remedy.
Although the USA and Australia are now starting to grow Chinese herbs, the strongest growing region remains China, for these and a range of other reasons. Whether other countries will be able to produce the quality of herbs required to reassure the traditional Chinese medicine practitioners remains to be seen. It’s a fledgling industry in the non-native countries and a very steep learning curve for new farmers in the herbal medicine space, but as global demand increases, additional sources of supply will, as a matter of course, achieve greater demand.
Vanessa Blake is a freelance writer and health freak with a ridiculous general knowledge of nutrition and the body. No wonder she decided to study for a Diploma of Nutrition in 2003. She also loves yoga.