Wild Food and Food Ethics (A Ramble Round )

Foraging for wild food has become very fashionable over the last two or three years. Is it a worthy attempt to use food sources that otherwise go to waste or are we just adding to the strain on the planet’s biodiversity already overstretched by our rapidly increasing population?

With our increased interest in all things organic and desire to return to a simpler life comes responsibility. It’s up to each of us to be well-informed before setting out to harvest wild foods.

I’m not really talking about legalities although, of course, these are important if we want to stay on the right side of the law and landowner. I’m talking about our responsibility to make informed choices about our food choices, whether we forage and if we do, what and where we forage.

To truly understand the effects of our actions we must consider wider issues. Think for a moment about the way most people in the developed world forage – in the supermarket. A walk round the local supermarket would lead you to believe that there is an incredible range of foods freely available for your enjoyment whatever the season.

A triumph of commerce over nature. This is partly true – you can see it for yourself! However, all is not as it first appears. Much of the fresh produce has traveled incredible distances to be there and as a result, a few innocent items popped into your basket can contribute to problems somewhere you’ve never heard of, let alone care about.

As consumers rather than gatherers, we pass most of our responsibility to a chain of people – growers, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers. We assume they must have everyone’s best interest at heart (or to be more honest we’d probably rather not think about it). It’s very easy for us to be unaware of the problems the system causes.

As supermarkets demand lower prices and more standard produce from farmers so yields must increase and acreage grow. For this reason, some of the most fragile habitats on earth are slowly being swallowed up by agriculture. I’m not here to argue the case against agri-business but I think we all need to take a good look at our place in all this.

So can you use foraging for wild food as a way of taking back some of the control and exercising your own responsibility? Up to a point. Unless you have plenty of spare time to spend on developing knowledge and then foraging I don’t think you’ll be able to use wild food for 100% of your diet.

However, a carefully considered policy of buying local seasonal produce and supplementing it with wild foods is a real and satisfying opportunity. Many people assume buying locally is more expensive than buying what’s hot at the supermarket but often they’re wrong. If cost is an issue think about increasing the wild food proportion of your diet. The trade-off (there’s always a trade-off!) is of course time.

Gathering and eating wild food can have many benefits for our health. When we walked into our supermarket a couple of paragraphs back we found a wide range of fresh, healthful-looking produce. It becomes less appealing when you realize most of it has been grown using fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals, and some of it may be genetically modified.

This is an accepted part of large-scale farming and is essential to maintain yields. For plants growing in the wild, it’s different. Of course, there are still pressures but no one is there to lend a helping hand.

To thrive they must receive perfect nutrition, perfect watering, and perfect sunlight all without the helping hand of agriculture. This means that each time we find a healthy wild plant it is literally packed with nutrients and if you’re careful where you gather, hopefully, no chemicals.

The picture supermarkets paint of choice is also a little different from reality. For most of us, I’d suggest that the range of fruit and vegetable species we eat from each year is pretty small compared to what’s on offer.

There is much evidence to suggest that hunter-gatherers ate (and still eat) from a comparatively wide range of plant species. It makes a lot of sense to spread the nutritional and harvesting load and take food from diverse sources as well as eat seasonally as different plants become available.

This range coupled with the high nutrient levels in wild plants and quality fat and protein from animal flesh and nuts would have given pretty near optimal nutrition.

Humans have always innovated. As soon as the man started farming he was keen to maximize the energy bang-per-buck of his crop and started to develop his crop accordingly. Why pull 100 roots when 10 could do the same job?

Starches became the quick, easily available, bulk energy source. This changed nutrient intake entirely and has continued to this day. We now rely on a small number of plant species that have fewer nutrients to give (remember that although carbohydrate is an energy source it provides no nutritional benefit in themselves).

The good news is that many nutrient-rich plants like those used by our hunter-gatherer ancestors are still around today lying unnoticed in fields and hedgerows waiting for someone to find them.

This is where we need to develop some knowledge to take advantage. The very act of learning and foraging provides us with the next big plus point. No one can deny the importance of our connection with nature.

An ideal way to make this connection is through understanding, foraging, and using wild plants. While out foraging we’re also getting exercise, much-needed sunlight, and fresh air. The benefits for our physical and mental health are huge.

For the hunter-gatherer, it doesn’t make good sense to annihilate the very plants you rely on for part of your diet. Now humans exert such pressure on the Earth’s resources this is truer than ever and foragers can do a service by spreading knowledge and protecting biodiversity.

Part of the problem with the progress of farming is the coverage of huge areas with very similar plants and the resulting reduction in biodiversity.

This brings us to a major question: what if everyone starts foraging for wild food? It’s a very good one. It’s still undecided whether agriculture started because of the pressures of increasing populations and weather patterns on large mammals that provided the bulk of our food or whether the development of agriculture allowed larger populations to gather in one place.

Whichever, it’s clear that if we all went out and started gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals 100% of the time we’d soon all be back at square one.

But to be honest, unless there is some sort of natural disaster I really can’t imagine most average 21st-century humans choosing this over popping into Tesco and filling a basket with goodies so I’d say we’re fairly safe.

If you have an interest in wild food, it’s down to YOU to think about the wider picture and conserve these precious resources. If carefully and respectfully done, foraging can be a joy and will open up a whole new world of flavors and possibilities. Happy foraging!