Herbalism: Open Source Medicine

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Herbalism is a low-cost, accessible, community-powered, patent-free form of medicine. It’s also under threat from the patent-driven pharmaceutical business. Could the values and struggles of open-source software proponents have much in common with herbalists?

Maybe Herbalists could benefit from working more closely with the open-source movement and learn from their experience. Web professionals could also find great value in learning more about herbalism and its benefits.

What is Herbalism?

From the Herbalism page on Wikipedia:

Herbalism is a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts.

It’s worth noting that practitioners of other alternative medicines, like homeopathy, naturopathy, aromatherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine and traditional medical systems like Chinese medicine may use elements of herbalism in their treatments. However, herbalists do not necessarily share all of the assumptions, methods or practices of these other medical systems. It’s important to judge each system on its own merit.

Herbalism and pharmaceutical drugs

What is the main difference between herbalism and pharmaceutical drugs used by modern medicine?

Herbalists tend to use extracts from parts of plants, such as the roots or leaves. The plant’s own chemical balance is expected to provide a more balanced treatment. The more aggressive ingredients needed to fight the disease are then compensated by nourishment from the plant.

The use of plants for medicine has been practiced by humanity in one form or another since prehistory. Even animals have been known to use herbal remedies to heal themselves or get rid of parasites. So, herbalism would even predate humanity’s existence!

Pharmaceutical drugs are created by isolating single ingredients or chemicals on the grounds that dosage can be more easily quantified. Pharmaceutical medicine emerged in the 16th century when the use of active chemical drugs, such as mercury, was introduced to fight syphilis, which proved particularly resistant to traditional medical solutions.

Herbalism and pharmaceuticals may take different approaches to healing, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t work well together. Most modern herbalists agree that pharmaceuticals are more effective in emergency situations where time is of the essence. An example would be where a patient had an acute heart attack that posed imminent danger. However, pharmaceuticals can be very hard on the body, as chemotherapy patients can attest. Use of herbalism medicine can be particularly beneficial in prevention and in recovery as it helps boost immunity and provides nutritional benefits that pharmaceuticals lack.

Is Herbalism really open source?

The term “open source” was coined by software developers in the late 90’s to describe various ways to develop, share and copyright software that were emerging. Open source software such as the Linux operating system or the OpenOffice.org suite of applications allow developers to access, use and modify the source code as long as they pass along the same rights to their users.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where anyone can freely add to or edit its content, is another successful open source project where knowledge is freely shared, instead of code.

The pharmaceutical business makes great use of the fact that single compounds can be patented in order to generate income. This practice is highly profitable and the pharmaceutical business generates hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Once a medical compound (like a drug or a particular molecule) is patented, the patent owner can exert considerable legal control over the way knowledge of this compound can be used, influencing who can create medicine from this compound, who can sell it and at what price. In this sense, pharmaceutical medicine is mostly based on a “closed-source” business model.

Herbalism, on the other hand, is based on traditional knowledge gathered over thousands of years, most of which is still freely available and patent-free. Anyone is free to use that knowledge, improve on it and share it with anyone else. No one “owns” raspberry leaves tea or garlic poultice. There are no copyright constraints to prevent you from making your own herbal medicine. You are still free to plant, harvest and share your own medicinal plant seeds (unlike farmers that use patented herbicide-resistant genetically-modified crops from companies like Monsanto.) This is why I think of herbalism as open-source medicine.

Kitchen-top medicine

Most production tools used by herbalism are also “open-source”. Herbalism uses material found in nature and uses simple processing techniques that are within the reach of even the poorest people. The ways herbalism ingredients can be processed include:

  • Used raw
  • Macerated in cold water
  • Boiled (decoctions, tea)
  • Dried (spices, tea)
  • Crushed or ground (juice, poultice)
  • Mixed with an oily substance (balms), alcohol or vinegar (tinctures) or sugar/honey (syrups)

From Wikipedia:

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Pharmaceuticals are prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s population, half of which lives on less than $2 U.S. per day. In comparison, herbal medicines can be grown from seed or gathered from nature for little or no cost.

Herbalists also make substantial use of plants from their local area. Indeed, what most people consider weeds, such as dandelions, can have valuable medicinal uses and were used by our ancestors as their personal “pharmacy”.

Open source vs closed source medicine

Herbalism tends to be a low-key, low-cost medical solution. Because of this, herbalism is not a very lucrative business model compared to the pharmaceutical industry. This is in part why herbalism struggles to promote itself efficiently and fight the pressures applied from the closed-source world.

Because the balance of power is so overwhelmingly skewed towards commercial interests, herbalism is under constant threat from pharmaceuticals and its enablers. This is a situation that software developers can recognize.

Large software corporations like Microsoft will often raise the specter of litigation against open-source projects or lobby against open-source projects. Thanks to these efforts, it’s not uncommon to see governments and other institutions go against their own financial interests and exclude free and open-source solutions from their software purchase policies.

We find a similar situation with health care. The marketing and public relations clout of the pharmaceutical industries overshadows the means of herbalists by many orders of magnitude. This tends to create a bias against herbalism in the media as herbalists rarely have the money and the skills to promote themselves efficiently and influence public opinion on a global scale.

On the other hand, the lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry is quite formidable. They spent $900 million on lobbying between 1998 and 2005, more than any other industry. Because of this, governments may pass legislation that will not only favor the interests of pharmaceuticals, but that can also make it harder (or near-impossible) for herbalists and other alternative medicine to practice and sell their products. These regulations are claimed to be for the public good but they usually end up simply protecting the pharmaceutical industry’s commercial interests and increase the cost of health-care.

Here are some examples:

  • Mandatory medical insurance to pay for (expensive) drugs but not for (low-cost) herbal remedies.
  • Mandatory lab testing for herbal remedies and food supplements that are prohibitively costly for most herbalists.
  • Outright bans on plants, such as the kava, on spurious grounds, such as their toxicity, even if over-the-counter pharmaceutical drugs can be just as toxic.
  • Extreme negative bias against herbalism (and outright exclusion of herbalism) from the teaching curriculum of health care professionals.
  • In some regions, Physicians are not allowed to prescribe herbal remedies even if these have been proven to be as effective, or more effective, as pharmaceuticals; often with less toxicity or secondary effects.
  • Herbalists can suffer from legal persecution from local or federal agencies attempting to prevent them from practicing or teaching herbalism.
  • Herbalism is also tied with native rights. The traditional medical knowledge of indigenous people around the world, and their local flora, are being plundered and tied with patents by pharmaceuticals, usually with little to no benefit to the local population.

Is herbalism safe to use?

The fact that herbalism can be used at various degrees by anyone looms large in the security concerns that are raised when attempts are made to regulate it. However, the benefits of protecting free access to herbalism products and knowledge should also be taken into consideration when assessing their risks.

Even if most plants used by herbalists can be used safely, some plants can produce very potent compounds which must be handled with care. Mixing medication and herbal remedies can also be detrimental in some circumstances. But this is also true for over-the-counter pharmaceutical products that people are free to purchase and use at their own discretion. Indeed the number of deaths from pharmaceutical drugs dwarfs the number of herbalism-related deaths in America.

So, yes, herbalism is a relatively safe medicine to use but it’s always a good idea to consult a trained herbalist or discuss your use of herbalism with a (open-minded) physician.

Managing freedom

How do you protect something that is meant to be free from legal restrictions? How do you manage groups of volunteers, idealists and professionals, many of which can be fiercely self-reliant, towards a common goal? Both open-source developers and herbalists have had to face these challenges and may learn from each other.

In particular, the open-source movement has found many creative and practical solutions to the logistical and legal aspects of their work which could be applicable or adapted to the context of herbalists. Some of these solutions include:

  • Collaborative repositories, like Wikipedia, where knowledge can be stored, organized, validated, debated, protected and shared.
  • Collaborative environments, such as SourceForge.net, help manage production, communication and participation of project members as well as distribute the result of their work.
  • Corporations such as the Wikimedia foundation or the Mozilla Foundation help provide funding and administrative support for open source projects.
  • Organizations like the Electric Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons help provide a legal framework, legislative lobbying and legal protection for digital rights.
  • The Open Patents movement seeks to register patents and release them to the public domain as a means of protection against litigation and undue constraints.

Coders and herbalists, unite!

Herbalism offers a simple, open, low-cost, accessible medical solution that is worth using and protecting. It’s one of humanity’s greatest treasures and heritages and should continue to be shared and practiced freely as we continue to reap the benefits of pharmaceutical medicine.

At first glance, herbalism and software development would seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact these people have a lot in common and would benefit from each other’s expertise.

Herbalism ties into the values and vision behind the open-source ideology and definitely ties into the “self-reliance” and “community” aspects of its movement. The ability to grow, process and use natural ingredients with freely accessible medical knowledge applicable in every day life should be appealing to the mindset of open-source enthusiasts.

Also, the tools and practices developed to foster open source software and protect it from closed-source threats could be applied to the herbalism world to great effect.

Here are some benefits that could arise from such collaboration:

  • Increased use of herbalism among developers, designers and marketing people in managing their health and that of their family;
  • The creation of a comprehensive, robust and multi-lingual collaborative initiative similar to Wikipedia to document herbalism knowledge and issues;
  • More effective legal and public relation strategies to promote herbalism globally and to protect it from legislative & patent abuse;
  • A wider acceptance and understanding of herbalism and its role in humanity’s health and history[C8] by the general public and by health professionals.


Are-you interested in exploring the themes covered in this article? See below for links to resources and organizations to help you become better acquainted with herbalism or the open-source movement.


If you are concerned about the legitimacy and scientific foundation of herbalism:


If you are interested in using herbalism to manage your day-to-day health and the health of your family, here are a few sites that will provide you with valuable information and guidelines:

  • Flora medicina
    A school of herbalism located in Montreal that combines teachings from science and traditions. This this article was inspired by its philosophy.
  • Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
    One of the oldest and largest herbal information sites on the web.
  • Todd Caldecott
    Medical Herbalist, Ayurvedic Practitioner
  • Christopher Hobbs – The Virtual Herbalspirit
    This virtual Herbal is devoted to honoring the plants and traditions of herbal medicine, and to the celebration of health
  • Sage Mountain
    Founded 24 years ago by Rosemary Gladstar and family, Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center & Botanical Sanctuary has become one of New England’s foremost learning centers for herbs and earth awareness.

IMPORTANT: like pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies can be toxic if used in the wrong dose, for the wrong reasons and in particular if you have certain conditions (age, heart condition, pregnancy, etc.). It’s best to discuss your use of herbalism with an (open-minded) physician or a trained herbalist.


If you are a health care professional and wish to learn more about how to use herbalism in your practice:


If you are interested in the social and political aspects of herbalism:


Research support and validation for this article was provided by Caroline Gagnon, co-founder of Flora Medicina, School of Herbalism. Thanks sis!


Photo is © Caroline Gagnon

In the spirit of open source, this article is published under a Creative Commons copyright license. You are free to quote from it, reproduce it in its entirety or improve on it as long as you keep a reference to its authors and pass along the same rights to your readers.

Creative Commons License
Herbalism: Open Source Medicine by Thierry Gagnon, Caroline Gagnon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.