Quality assurance is a theme that comes up again and again in this site. I use the term not just to describe quality in its literal sense, but also to include sustainability and ethics. Biolaya stood out not because of what herbs we produced, but how we produced them.
It was important to us not to make woolly claims, but to create foolproof systems to ensure – and provide assurance – that the herbs we were growing and collecting were organic, sustainably produced and fairly traded, and ultimately contributing to the conservation of threatened herbs species.
I have already described how we used an Internal Control System and Wild Harvest Management Plan to monitor and manage the organic integrity and sustainability of our cultivation and wild collection projects. Both of these systems were originally designed for 3rd party certification but, as we demonstrated, they can be just as valuable as a means of implementing a simpler internal standard.
In this section I introduce a few other concepts that were vital to our projects, drawing on my experience from working with Biolaya as well as from other work I have done, especially in my current role as Sustainable Herbs Manager for Pukka Herbs.
I begin by examining how herbs are traded in the domestic herb industry in India, and more specifically how the long and notoriously secretive supply chains make it almost impossible to monitor and manage how the herbs are produced. These ‘linear supply chains’ are responsible for some shockingly poor quality herbs and drive the trade in threatened species harvested from the wild.
As a more sustainable alternative I describe the concept of a holistic supply chain, in which the farmers and/or collectors, processors and manufacturers (and/or any other link in the chain) are able to communicate with each other, directly or indirectly, or visit each other in person so that they can provide feedback and make improvements where required.
There are many guidelines and standards available to help producers improve the quality of cultivation, wild collection and processing, but probably the most important are Good Agricultural and Collection Practices for Medicinal Plants (otherwise known as GACP). We did a lot of work on GACP, including a project with FAO to develop training material for farmers and collectors, all of which I have included in the GACP section.
From a buyer’s perspective, beyond the obvious forms of quality assurance such as organic certification, CITES permits and test reports etc., it makes a huge difference to know that a supplier has also voluntarily put internal quality assurance systems in place. This is in itself a form of value addition and usually justifies a higher price for the produce.
With these systems in place, perhaps the ultimate offering in quality assurance is to be able to provide total traceability, including information and photographs, of every batch of herbs back to the farms and forests where they began their journey.
At Biolaya we experimented with this concept by creating an online documentation system called Field to Shelf. The software was designed primarily for our own internal management, but it also presented opportunities to share information with buyers, and to enable them to trace every batch back to its source. This was an experimental system that worked excellently for us, and I believe this type of software will become an important element of quality assurance in the future.
There are many aspects of quality assurance relevant to herb production that I haven’t included, especially in more advanced stages of processing and manufacturing, where there are countless guidelines and standards such as Good Manufacturing Practices, HACCP, ISO, BRC, and so on. Compared to quality assurance in the field, these are well documented and there is little of value I can add.
Finally, in the page on quality reflections, I consider some of the challenges in implementing quality assurance systems, especially in how we can find a balance between what it desirable (or necessary) and what is actually realistic and practical.