Herbal education and training, past and present.

In the UK there have been a number of pathways to becoming a herbalist:

1. Traditional often family based, frequently mother to daughter. This is particularly true in the remote corners of the UK. This training was frequently detailed on which plants were useful for what conditions; where they could be found; seasons to gather; how to process them, etc. It was admittedly lacking in the evaluation of methods used as well as scientific knowledge. Despite that, the numbers of people harmed by traditional herbalists is minute compared to the harm caused by modern pharmaceuticals.

It is this question of potential harm caused by herbalists that is central to the argument for regulation. The statistical evidence for harm advanced by those wanting practitioner registration is unsustainable. In February 2010 we have a classic example of the public being misled on the safety of herbal medicines. A case was reported of a lady who suffered major organ damage after reportedly consuming a herbal product of none UK origin. This product contained a herb that has been banned in the UK for several years. Despite that ban it was sold. Statutory regulation of herbalists is most unlikely to force change on non UK traditional healers. Any enforcement should be on the importation of such products in the same manner that Tiger parts are banned - yet even such banned imports still get through. This is a single but tragic case and it is very doubtful that regulation of the practitioners who use these remedies will achieve anything.

2. A mixture of traditional knowledge combined with scientific knowledge. This came about when herbalists started organising themselves into associations such as the now National Institute of Medical Herbalists. That education in the early days was mainly via correspondence courses and attendance at practical training seminars. The advantage of this method was that students got clinical training with practitioners who had been working at the trade for years. They also trained at different locations with different practitioners and thus obtained a good overview of the different methods of herbal practice. Other associations such as the IRCH have retained these methods of traditional training.

3. In recent years, the training has moved into Universities where the practical traditional training has been significantly suppressed and chemical and scientific studies have taken precedence. The result of that has been disillusionment of many students who have dropped out. This University based training will be the main method used if regulation of the trade occurred. It has sadly lost a lot of the true traditional knowledge held in the heads of the older herbalists as they die out. Fortunately there are still enough around to redress the balance if they were utilised.

Major differences of opinion are apparent between those who want traditional style training to continue, along with scientific education, and those who have abandoned that in favour of University education. This has led to a fragmentation of the herbal organisations with many (hundreds over the last 20 years) leaving or refusing to be a member of any of them. At the moment the academic route is winning because we have a Government who have strongly promoted University education. Sadly the days of Universities being a seat of educational excellence are gone. Certain subjects are even taught by teachers who do not know the subject they are expected to teach, but their contracts can force them to teach anything. Not many people know that FACT of life with University teachers.

Due to this huge shift to an academic herbal education, in the UK we are fast losing traditional knowledge. New Herbalists are not getting the benefit of learning from their predecessors who are dying off with vast amounts of knowledge locked in their brains. The current proposals for Statutory regulation will only lead to a generation of herbalists with no traditional knowledge other than what is documented in books. Books on herbal medicine rarely provide vital information such as how plants were prepared for any given situation, or how the proportions of the different plants were used. That is exactly what is missing in Academic herbal publications such as the German Commission E monographs. Many seem to think this is an authoritative text, but guidance on how herbs were blended is missing as is an adequate evaluation of dosages. There is certainly a place for academic studies, but not at the cost of losing a system that has served us well for many hundreds of years.

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