Botany is the scientific study of plants, from the smallest to the largest of life forms – the chlorophyll-rich marine algae, the exotic frangipani, the magnificent Californian redwoods, and the estimated 400,000 species in between. Plants are essential to human life. We rely on these valuable resources for our food, water, oxygen, soil, fibre, medicine, building materials and spiritual nourishment. Plants regulate the global climate, drive the carbon cycle and provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife. We can take a predominantly plant-based approach to our lifestyles – through nutrition, beauty and medicine – without the use of animal-based products or ingredients. Adopting a plant-based lifestyle can also help protect the marine environment.
As well as a passion for marine conservation, I am interested in combining traditional ecological and medicinal knowledge with modern scientific theory. I believe there is much we can gain from ancient cultures, while modern science, with its focus on measurement and the scientific method, can validate indigenous wisdom, bringing their knowledge into the mainstream. Yet there are aspects of ancient wisdom that, although they defy measurement and logic, can be of immense value. Many years ago, I remember reading about native North American Indian philosophy, and that we all have a unique ‘medicine’.
Respected traditional healer Kenneth Cohen was mentored by Native American medicine men and women in the learning of his craft. He actively works to maintain a dialogue between ancient wisdom and modern science. He says that from an indigenous perspective, we all have a gift and a calling, and we experience our greatest health when we embrace our life purpose and express the spiritual gifts we are given – our personal medicine.
Healing means to ‘make whole’ and to be healthy we must walk the path of harmony, beauty and balance, by cultivating gratitude, respect, courage, humility and kindness.
Native Americans call being on this path ‘walking in beauty and balance’. To be healthy also means having a strong relationship with community, including the greater community of nature, known as ‘All Relations’. This greater community of nature includes plants, animals and all life forms that share the Earth with human beings.
Adopting a plant-based lifestyle is the essence of botanical medicine – and it can be a gift and a calling. Many people follow a plant-based lifestyle to spare animals and this is admirable. Having studied ecology, I understand that all life needs to ‘eat’ to survive.
Native North American Indians hunted animals for food (as do the Inuit/Eskimos today), but they never took more than was needed to survive. Hunting was a spiritual act, and animals were given the respect they deserved for giving their lives so people could eat, a respect sorely lacking in modern industrial agriculture.
Eating animals so your family can survive is not cruel but treating animals as a commodity and an economic unit is. When we embrace botanical medicine and make plants the focus of our nutrition, beauty and health, we don’t participate in modern industrial society’s abuse of animals.
But the situation is not so black and white. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The palm oil industry harms orang-utans as it destroys their forest habitat. Palm oil is in hundreds of food and beauty products, but nobody would advocate the use of palm oil as part of a plant-based lifestyle.
The Amazon rainforest is being cut down to graze cattle and grow soy to feed them. Soy is a plant although in this context, if we don’t eat meat, we are not participating in this destructive practice.
Even if we embrace a plant-based lifestyle and avoid animal-based products and ingredients, animals will always play a role in our lives and the life of the Earth. It is impossible to have a lifestyle completely free from the influence of animals. Plants, animals and human beings are intimately linked by the natural cycles governing the planet. Carbon is the basic building block of all organisms, and is continuously recycled and reused through various life forms via the carbon cycle.
As primary producers, plants take in carbon dioxide molecules from the atmosphere, combine it with water molecules and, using solar energy, manufacture sugars, starches and oxygen molecules via photosynthesis. All non-photosynthetic organisms, including animals, utilize these sugars and starches because they cannot manufacture their own food. Herbivores eat plants, while carnivores eat animals that have eaten plants (carnivores generally don’t eat other carnivores). Omnivores, including human beings, eat both plants and animals.
Sugars and starches eaten by animals are metabolised, creating energy and water. Oxygen is breathed in, and carbon dioxide is breathed out, which returns the carbon dioxide molecules to the atmosphere, where they are used again by plants. When plants and animals die, decomposers break down the dead and decaying organic material which makes nutrients available to plants via their roots.
This process builds soil, and it is soil that provides nutrients to help fruit trees and vegetables grow. Plants and animals are intricately linked by their need for energy. It’s the cycle of reciprocity in action.
Even if we are vegetarians and don’t eat animal protein, we still rely on animals to provide some of the protein we consume. Cows are vegetarians and eat grass (they are not physiologically designed to eat grain) and convert plant protein to milk, butter and cheese
Chickens, however, are not vegetarians. They are supposed to eat grubs and insects, not grains, and they convert this animal protein to eggs. If you eat eggs, always choose pastured eggs because the chickens have been allowed to graze outside on grass. There are huge ethical issues with the egg and dairy industries, but these are beyond the scope of this post.
All diets, whether we are vegan, vegetarian or meat-eaters, should have fruit and vegetables as their main component (at least three-quarters). If possible, ensure most of your fruit and vegetable intake is fresh, whole, unpackaged, organic, locally grown and seasonal.
An easy way to get enough fruit and vegetables into our daily diet is by following my 3-6-9 Guideline. Aim to have 3 servings of fresh fruit, 6 servings of cooked vegetables and 9 servings of raw salad vegetables, more if you possibly can. Then build on this fruit and vegetable base with high-quality animal and/or plant proteins, essential fats and wholegrain complex carbohydrates.
In addition to fruit and vegetables, we can easily increase the amount of plant material in our diets. Nuts, seeds and pulses are great sources of plant protein. Avocado, coconut oil and olive oil provide essential fats. Always choose the whole version of a grain, including steel cut oats, brown rice and wholegrain bread. If you consume animal protein, reduce your intake (don’t eat it every day, and then only once a day), and opt for sustainable, pasture-raised and grass-fed versions and avoid factory farmed products.
There are two important issues we need to be aware of here – animal-based ingredients and testing of beauty products on animals.
We can purchase beauty products containing animal-derived ingredients, but we don’t have to, as there are plant-based alternatives. We can purchase beauty products containing ingredients tested on animals, although we really shouldn’t, because animals don’t deserve to suffer for our beauty.
Purchase beauty products containing plant-based ingredients, and avoid products containing ingredients derived from animals, tested on animals or that indirectly harm animals, such as palm oil (found in all conventional beauty products).
When you shop for beauty products always read the labels. This is an easy way to determine if the ingredients in your favourite beauty products are derived from plants or animals.
Choose Cruelty Free is a great online resource on cosmetic animal testing and alternative cruelty-free beauty products.
There are many online resources available on palm oil – the best one on alternative products is the Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia website.
If you discover animal-sourced or animal-tested ingredients in a product, make a choice. What’s more important to you?
I find it incredible when some people say plant-based or herbal medicine doesn’t work when many of the oldest, most well-known conventional medicines are derived from plants. The active ingredient in aspirin, used for pain relief, is salicylic acid, extracted from willow bark. Digitalis, used to treat heart problems, is made from the common foxglove.
Quinine, used in the prevention and treatment of malaria, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree, found in the South American rainforests. Rainforest plant species are known to contain chemical compounds with astounding medicinal properties, and there are many species that have yet to be discovered by modern science.
Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant oils to promote psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing, alleviate anxiety and depression, or ease muscular aches and pains. The volatile chemical constituents of essential oils enter the brain through the olfactory system or enter the body through the skin.
During inhalation, odour molecules travel through the nose and affect various receptor sites in the brain, including the limbic system. There are three main components to the limbic system that control physiological responses in the body – the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala – and aromatherapy takes effect through these glands.
Plant-based action for the ocean
If we eat more plant-based foods, we may eat less meat, and this can only have a positive effect on the marine environment. Modern industrial animal agriculture produces enormous amounts of waste and run-off, including pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and excess nutrients that pollute rivers, streams and the ocean. High methane emissions from factory farms contribute to climate change and ocean acidification.
Fish are vital elements in complex marine ecosystems, but over-fishing is depleting fish stocks and impacting marine food chains and food webs. The situation is not as dire as some have predicted, but we must continue to work hard now to ensure the fishing industry remains sustainable in the long-term, not just for human beings, but for the marine organisms who rely on them as a food source, including whales and dolphins. We can choose to eliminate fish from our diets or significantly reduce our fish consumption.
We can take marine algae for our Omega-3, but we must ensure it is sourced sustainably. Three-quarters of the oxygen we breathe is created by marine plants, so it’s not as simple as substituting marine plants for fish to obtain Omega-3.
Where do you think fish get their Omega-3 from? Some fish eat marine plants for their Omega-3 and carnivorous fish eat other fish for their Omega-3. If we all switched from fish to marine plants for our Omega-3, marine food webs may still be impacted.
A healthy marine environment is vital to sustain life on land and in the ocean, and marine ecosystems must be carefully managed for all species to survive.
Food-based beauty products
Plastic packaging is a serious threat to the marine environment. We can buy plant-based beauty products, but they may still be packaged in plastic. Opt for products packaged in glass, or recycle plastic packaging however, in the absence of a good community recycling program, the packaging may still end up in the ocean. An alternative to buying beauty products is to use food-based beauty products.
Mashed avocado makes a nourishing masque, strawberries can be used to whiten teeth, ground nuts gently exfoliate skin, a paste made from cooked rolled oats softens skin, aloe vera gel cools and soothes sunburned skin, and coconut oil can be gently heated, combined with essential oils and applied to hair, or mixed with fine sea salt as a body scrub.
Better yet, eat these foods instead of applying them to the skin. If we eat well and our diets are predominantly plant-based, we eliminate the need for most beauty products, as it is food (protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals) that builds and repairs our bodies, not products.
Plants are a vital part of the Earth’s greater community of nature and provide many gifts for humanity, including food, shelter, clothing, healing and spiritual nourishment.