Many nutritionists, herbalists, and consumers view natural medicine as an intrinsic part of a general scope of green living. While the natural supplement industry, like all corporate industries, comes with a relatively large ecological footprint, many consumers view it as a more earth-friendly alternative to conventional, pharmaceutical medicine. But is alternative medicine really any less of an environmental hazard than its “chemical” counterpart?
To grow medicinal herbs, unless they are wild-crafted, land must be cleared, and– unless the herbs are grown organically– they also tend to require the use of pesticides and herbicides to keep the active, volatile oils in the herbs very high and medicinally valuable. However, compared to the amount of food that we take in every day, the amount of a medicinal herb taken for therapeutic use is miniscule. Only a few ounces of an herb may be needed to treat a disease, but we eat pounds of plant and animal matter every day.
Because of this, the base material used in natural medicine is almost always much more earth-friendly than pharmaceutical medicines. A pharmaceutical drug must be processed to an extreme, often from unsustainable sources, and petroleum-based fuel is usually the method used to power this hyper-processing. During the creation and processing of a pharmaceutical drug, dozens of toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere. Because of this, advocates of green living often avoid the use of conventional medicine if an alternative medicine will be equally effective.
Still, the medicinal herb industry itself is far from harmless. Except for a few small-scale, at-home herbalists– increasingly rare due to FDA regulation– most alternative medicine companies relay heavily on fossil fuels to process, package, and transport their products. As with conventional medicines, plastic bottles, based in petroleum by-products, are used by most supplement manufacturers, and they are usually transported in diesel-powered trucks. While the industry may be more earth-friendly when it comes to their base materials, alternative medicine is usually just as guilty as the pharmaceutical industry in the ecological impact of packaging and transportation.
Owing to pressures from their target audience, some supplement manufacturers, like the high-end brand Solgar, are moving toward more sustainable packaging, and others donate a portion of profits to earth-friendly non-profit organizations. Because the general clientelle of the alternative medicine industry tend to be more concerned with the ecological impact of their consumer choices, the industry is quickly and efficiently responding to the task of creating a more sustainable business model.
Understanding this, some pharmaceutical companies, such as Bristol- Myers Squibb, are also shifting their own focus toward greener pastures. By creating more energy-efficient processing plants for the medications that they manufacture, they are paving the way for other pharmaceutical companies to do the same. Still, the ecological impact of the medicines themselves will push some consumers away from choosing “chemical” medicines over natural alternatives.
While the alternative medicine industry has a smaller ecological footprint than the pharmaceutical industry, it is not a completely harmless or “natural” solution to all ecological problems. Practitioners of green living may select one choice or the other based on a desire to limit the ecological impact of their health care, but medicines should generally be selected based on safety, efficacy, and personal ethics. Regardless of which form of medicine a consumer chooses, it is wise to select products based on how earth-friendly the company itself is– not the industry as a whole.