I love that wild foods are the most nutritious, natural and sustainable of all foods – which is why they are a daily part of my diet. But because I still have to pay for the bulk of my sustenance, I’m ever so grateful to food journalist Jo Robinson and her wonderful book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health”. And while I do have one small reservation (more on that later) her book provided me with a practical and empowering guide to the most nutritious foods that money can buy – the fruits and vegetables closest to their wildest relatives.
Touted as “the next stage in the food revolution—a radical way to select fruits and vegetables and reclaim the flavour and nutrients we’ve lost” her book drives home the point that whether its tomatoes, kale, lettuce, apples, berries, wheat and grains – all our foods descend from wild foods. The problem? “Ever since farmers first planted seeds 10,000 years ago, humans have been destroying the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. Unwittingly, we’ve been selecting plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants for more than 400 generations”.
In other words, we bred a wealth of nutrients out of the human diet. For example, our pale overbred iceberg lettuce (descended from wild greens) contains only a fraction of the nutrients found in wild lettuce, dandelion, nettles, chickweed, garlic mustard, sheep sorrel, yarrow, garlic mustard and many other herbs and plants which have been consumed by our ancestors since prehistoric times.
Her book shows us “how to regain these lost nutrients by choosing modern varieties that approach the nutritional content of wild plants.” From lettuce, potatoes, onions, berries and apples, she categorizes over-domesticated foods to avoid and provides lists of foods are closest to their original “natural” state like green apples, green onions, black concord grapes, artichokes and many other varieties.
All of which begs the question – why not just eat wild foods in the first place? This doesn’t mean giving up the sweet starchy pleasures of the modern diet to scratch in the dirt for leaves, seeds and roots. To me it just makes sense to go back to the source and add back as many lost nutrients as we possibly can.
Which brings me to my small bone of contention. While I agree with Robinson that living on wild plants is no longer feasible – “there are too many of of us and not enough wilderness” her book fails to mention that wild foods are a viable, nutritious, freely available food source that can supplement modern diets, enhance our health and increase the security of local food systems. And we don’t need to shell out for pricey superfoods either – it’s as simple as stepping out our front door, picking some dandelions and making a soup.
Fact is, eating wild doesn’t require wading deep into the backwoods, or trampling endangered ecological areas. Wild plants grow in abundance as “weeds” in our backyards, our neighbourhoods, our city parks and urban green spaces. Many of these plants are so plentiful they are classified as “invasive” by our government and are eliminated at great effort and cost (often with carcinogenic pesticides) in our regional parks and local municipalities.
And in this time of rising food costs, climate change and food insecurity, does it really make sense to eliminate foods that require no work or resources to plant, grow or water? After all many of these plants and herbs like chickweed, thistle, burdock, dandelion, gorse, lambs-quarters, garlic mustard, blackberry and hawthorn, were once part of a beloved seasonal and medicinal cuisine eaten for thousands of years.
Of course we can’t just step outside and start picking everything we see. Some wild plants are poisonous. But the truth of the matter is that edible plants far outweigh deadly ones. And once we learn to identify and avoid harmful plants, a vast cornucopia of nourishing food abundance begins to offer itself; fresh greens, berries, nuts and herbs. And they are growing all around us – for free.
I realize that for many the idea of eating “weeds” is still, well, a little strange. But wild foods are part of a growing ecological and culinary movement grounded in the virtues of local sustainable eating – and they’ve been enjoying 5 star ratings in the worlds top restaurants for years!
That said, it’s important to remember that wild foods are more a return to tradition than a trend. Not always the sole provenance of “back to nature” hippie dippy types, big-bearded hipsters, top chefs or ethnobotanists – they were the food of the people. Knowing which plants to pick and when, how to prepare them, and how to use them medicinally, was part of body of traditional knowledge passed on through the generations. Both my grandmother and husband’s mother remember being taught by their mothers and grandmothers how to forage for such seasonal delights as wild berries, nettles and mushrooms.
So what happened? How did we lose this knowledge in the space of a few generations? One reason could be the emergence of food experts (funded by agribusiness) whose food pyramid charts told us the “right” way to eat. A way to eat that put profits in pockets by convincing us that “real food” was the food we buy at the store. And slowly those foods not mass-produced by industry, became just plain forgotten.
But today, as the nutrient levels of domestic foods dwindles (and prices skyrocket) it’s become more important than ever to learn how to eat wild once again. As a wild food educator and activist, I believe its time we recognize that wild foods are a valuable food resource for local communities. And as such, I advocate they deserve a place at the table alongside food security initiatives such as community and boulevard gardens, urban farms, urban orchards and food forests. Because by finding a way to give “weeds” a little space of their own to grow in our community green spaces (free from toxic chemicals) we can once again make their nourishing sustenance accessible to all.
So while I urge you to pick Robinson’s book and spend your food dollars on the wildest foods possible – let’s also remember there are other options available beyond the supermarket aisle. With just a little investment in community education, wild foods could be transformed from pests and weeds into vital food resources, part of an evolving “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves. So let’s begin to take wild food seriously and recognize as Robinson does, that they constitute the missing link to our optimum well-being .
Note: If you live in Victoria you can hear Jo Robinson speak at the upcoming Sustainable Health and Wellness Festival. Link here.