When I first started foraging a few years ago, I was overwhelmed by all the amazing new things to learn and how much edible food grows around us. Even people living in cities may have wild food in the form of dandelions, lambsquarter and other common “weeds” that are in fact not only edible but actually nutritious. I wanted to feast on EVERYTHING I could lay my hands on, and given my semi-suburban / semi-rural location in Central Maryland, there is a lot to try.
As time passes, I have noticed a subtle shift in my relationship to wild food. Honestly, one that is still ongoing. I’m going to attempt to articulate in this post three key reasons why I think it is so important that everyone start learning about and eating more wild food.
I am increasingly concerned about the state of our world: the economy, the condition of the environment, our culture, and the extent to which everything in our lives depends on cheap oil. Signs seem to indicate oil may not stay cheap forever – in fact, that prices may be artificially kept low for as long as possible – due to the fact that the planet is running out of oil, combined with geopolitical factors beyond the understanding (much less control) of the average human being. And once oil is no longer cheap, neither will be things which depend on it … like imports, domestic industrial agriculture, and just-in-time food delivery. Not to say bananas, coffee, chocolate and almond flour will magically vanish overnight. But they may become prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people.
Additionally, given the uncertainty about the health of our planet – and the consequences for humanity and other non-human creatures which live here – eating what grows on its own is a sound ecological practice. It doesn’t require applying chemical fertilizer or diverting water sources. Perhaps the wild food grows better with human support and nurturing, but perhaps it grows just fine either way. Perhaps human foraging actually helps preserve the local balance (I’m looking at you, autumn olive and Japanese knotweed!). And as the climate shifts – and it IS shifting, whether or not politicians are willing to acknowledge or do anything about it – the natural world will adapt faster than humans with our “but this is the way it works” mentality. And if we can learn to eat wild mustard greens when they are in season, rather than tame brassicas when the looper moths and cabbage worms descend and the summer heat blisters the leaves, maybe we will adapt better to the inevitable climactic changes as well.
Last, and perhaps not least, the more I learn the more it seems that wild food benefits human health. You know, like what we evolved eating for millennia before the domestication of plants and animals occurred? Humans are very fortunate in that they are omnivores and can eat a wide variety of food. Arguments about the “ideal” human diet aside, part of the reason we have been so successful as a species is because we can survive to a reproductive age on different kinds of food found in different climates. When we domesticated plants, however, we started breeding them to be softer and more tender; sweeter and more palatable. (In addition to having less resistance to pests and being more dependent on humans.) But tougher foods (e.g., more soluble and insoluble fiber) may be better for our health, both directly and through support of our gut microbiome. And bitter foods may contain traces of phytochemicals that provide medicinal benefits which are currently lacking in our uniform, domesticated diet. Not to mention the diversity of plants humans needed to forage for survival, compared to the fairly monochromatic diet of modern Americans.
I have heard the argument before that foraging is impossible on a global scale because there isn’t enough wild food to go around; humans would destroy local ecosystems in the search for enough sustenance for 7.5 billion mouths. And I’m not suggesting that foraging should be the primary source of calories for anyone. I still believe that gardening and small scale agriculture (especially permaculture) have an important role to play in the dietary habits of most people. (Whether they realize it or not….) But foraging can and should play more of a part, for those who have taken the time to learn which plants in their environment – city, suburb and country – can be safely eaten.
Eaten anything wild lately?