Factoring sustainability into herbal medicine, whether we’re using it in veterinary practice or for our own well-being, is increasingly important to the health of our planet and its ecosystems.

The well-being of the planet, and thus ecosystem resiliency, is deeply linked to the sustainability of herbal medicine and the preservation of cultural traditions. Using herbs in either a holistic veterinary practice or on a personal level elevates our awareness not only of what the plants can do for an ailment, but more importantly, what we can do for the plants and the planet. The interconnectedness of human, animal and planetary well-being is becoming more apparent than ever. The pathway of learning about herbal therapeutics and understanding how a plant grows, what part of the plant is used, where the plants are sourced and the challenges they are exposed to in the supply chain, brings about important questions to navigate. This article seeks to provide resources to help address those questions.


Conservation through cultivation is a path towards sustainability if a plant can be propagated easily. For example, in the 1980s, Paul Strauss developed his herbal Golden Salve to treat his farm animals and himself. The founder of Equinox Botanicals, Paul was instrumental in encouraging United Plant Savers (see sidebar below) to establish a botanical sanctuary in Rutland, Ohio, because the land had an established population of goldenseal that spanned several acres. A wonderful movie, Sanctity of Sanctuary, tells the story of how Paul became a self-taught herbalist, farmer, and land steward.

Goldenseal is an iconic American medicinal plant with a long tradition of use among numerous tribes; it’s also part of the Eclectic Materia Medica. It can be propagated, but most of the goldenseal on the market today is wild harvested. United Plant Savers is working with farmers through the USDA Beginning Forest Farmer Coalition and the Plant Saver’s Forest Grown Verification program to support a more sustainable supply chain for this popular herb.

Unfortunately, many at-risk plants cannot be easily propagated. The seeds may be difficult to germinate, or they may not propagate by cuttings, which means sustainable harvesting and management becomes critical to the plant’s survival. The United States has no governance on plants harvested for trade. Choosing a company that you trust and has transparent practices is vital.


We certainly want to be mindful of the conservation concerns surrounding the medicinal plants that go into the products we use, but why does the state of the world’s biodiversity matter? In a recent Nature article entitled “Why deforestation and extinctions make a pandemic more likely,” Jeff Tollefson cites a recent study that helps reveal why: “While some species are going extinct, those that tend to survive and thrive — rats and bats, for instance — are more likely to host potentially dangerous pathogens that can make the jump to humans.”2

On September 17, 2020, the IUCN posted a call to members that now is the time to form a Global Wildlife Health Authority:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vulnerable we are to emerging diseases, and exposed the lack of wildlife health oversight, surveillance and management across the world. Our disturbance of the natural world and growing human and domestic animal populations are increasing contact with wild species and novel emerging infections. To help prevent future emergence of novel pathogens and outbreaks of known zoonotic diseases, the global community should designate a global authority for wildlife diseases and strengthen capacities to monitor and manage disease risks, argue members of the IUCN SSC Wildlife Health Specialist Group.”3

The IUCN also released a statement about the COVID-19 pandemic on April 8, 2020, stating that land use change is a key driver of emerging zoonotic diseases.4 Deforestation rates have increased astronomically; in just the last 100 years, the world has lost as much forest as it did in the previous 9,000 years — that’s nearly one-third of the planet’s forests, according to OurWorldinData.org.5 While it is difficult to grasp such numbers and concepts, what we do know is that trees are not only amazing at supporting biodiversity, providing oxygen, and cooling the planet, but they also produce forest volatile organic compounds that have numerous benefits to human and animal health. All the benefits provided by trees and plants, and how they sustain life on the planet, along with the interconnectedness of human health and ecosystem health, are becoming more apparent as the concept of One Health gains momentum.

1 Thorn J and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. Kew State of the World’s Plants 2016. January 2016. https://www.kew.org/science/state-of-the-worlds-plants-and-fungi.

2 Tollefson J. Why deforestation and extinctions make pandemics more likely. Nature. August, 7, 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02341-1.

3 It is Time for a Global Wildlife Health Authority. International Union for Conservation of Nature. September 17, 2020. https://www.iucn.org/crossroads-blog/202009/it-time-a-global-wildlife-health-authority.

4 IUCN Statement on the COVID-19 Pandemic. International Union for Conservation of Nature. April 8, 2020. https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/202004/iucn-statement-covid-19-pandemic.

5 Ritchie H, Roser M. Forests and deforestation. OurWorldInData.org. 2021. https://ourworldindata.org/deforestation.


Susan Leopold, PhD, is an ethnobotanist and passionate defender of biodiversity. Over the past 20 years, Susan has worked extensively with indigenous peoples in Peru and Costa Rica. She is the Executive Director of United Plant Savers. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Botanical Dimensions and the Center for Sustainable Economy. She is an advisory board member of the American Botanical Council. She is a proud member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia.


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