I’ve been foraging for over a decade now, but lately, I’ve noticed a growing number of newly enthused “wildcrafting” entrepreneurs selling their wares. So imagine my surprise when a local wildcrafter recently insinuated that his enlightened approach to wildcrafting and stewardship of the land was opposed to the forager’s clear-cutting ways and take, take, take mentality. Because he seemed oblivious to the irony that by wildcrafting (for money) he was taking considerably more than his fair share.
I’m not sure how foraging got such a bad name. Once cat tail luvin’ dandelion eatin’ foragers like Euell Gibbons were considered to be the very epitome of a natural conservationist. And all the self-called foragers I have had the pleasure to meet were sober, conscientious nature loving people – and the first to emphasise to me the importance of stewarding the land. Confusing what I do (foraging for myself and my loved ones) with commercial foraging is part of the problem. Foraging is not about commerce. Because once you take what the earth provides us for free and sell it for profit – that’s business, that’s agriculture.
And for those who want to keep wild food out of the industrialised food system, this is no small point. Because it is agriculture (as it is currently practised) that is responsible for our food crisis, the destruction of natural habitats, the poisoning of our land and water -not foragers.
Consider that once all our ancestors were foragers, they roamed over the land gathering food freely provided by mother nature. But with agriculture came a new idea, staying in one place to ‘work’ the land. And food went from being a ‘gift’ of the earth – to a ‘product’ of human knowledge, craft and labour. A commodity to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow. (For more on this see The Why of Spring Nettle Pie.)
Foraging was a good lifestyle compared to early farming, which according to Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen “was back breaking, time-consuming, and labour intensive.” Hunter gatherer societies were healthier, had more leisure time than their farming counterparts – and more food. In fact, a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated farming produced only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging.
This spurred Jack R. Harlan, one of the great pioneers of historical ecology to ask what has become a famous question -why farm? “Why give up the 20-hour work week and the fun of hunting in order to toil in the sun? Why work harder, for food less nutritious and a supply more capricious? Why invite famine, plague, pestilence and crowded living conditions?”
Weisdorf believes the pre historic shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.”
In other words, agriculture led to food surplus which led to the accumulation of material wealth, and as populations and farms got bigger – the control of the food supply (and its profits) somehow fell into fewer and fewer hands. And along the way, whole bio-regional food systems were destroyed and replaced by a handful of genetically uniform, high-yielding mono-crops ( i.e. rice, corn, soy and wheat) owned by a handful of mega-corporations today.
Now I’m not advocating we give up the city and wander the forests. We need to steward what’s left and restore indigenous foodways, and of course, we can’t return to the past. Foraging will not feed our populations. But in tandem with community gardens, urban farms, boulevard gardens and food forests – foraging might go a long way in improving our diets and our relationship with nature. And not just pristine nature “out there” in remote national parks, but the immediate nature that exists outside our front door.
Scottish forager Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods reminds us that the vast majority of foraging for plants or fruits isn’t conducted in the wilderness but closer to home, in liminal zones between the wild and the domestic, for what is commonly considered “weeds”. These “superabundant” plants Williams points out “rot by tons” in urban and suburban neighbourhoods each year. He defines superabundant as “meaning if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” He adds, “of course less than 1% of everybody is actually interested in harvesting these species.”
I’m hoping that once we realise we can get enough food from our neighbourhood green spaces to meaningfully supplement our nutritional needs that maybe we’d begin to find a way towards a new kind of sustainable agriculture, a “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves.
But of course, there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Because what happens when some enterprising individual sees this free local bounty not as a communal resource to be shared but as a personal one to be exploited for profit? What if she wants to ‘wildcraft’ more than her share of the nettle stalks for her woven baskets? What if he wants to harvest all the St. John’s Wort to sell to high priced food markets? Will he or she begin to hire ‘commercial’ foragers to meet economic demand? You get my drift.
“Wildcrafters” like to say what they do is about much more than just gathering food. They see themselves as adding value to a raw product by weaving together history, art, spirituality, ecology, storytelling, and intentional action. They want to deepen our relationship with the natural world. Sounds good. But I worry (however they choose to go about it) that the selling of wild foods exploits indigenous food resources and foodways, minimises community self-reliance, encourages passive consumption, and boosts consumer demand – and not for the better.
Here in BC wild mushrooms have become big business, supplying markets in China and around the world, and this has resulted in a number of criminal incidents. Quebec banned the harvest of ramps (wild leeks) after hordes of commercial harvesters were discovered to be threatening the species.
In Quebec, NorCliff Farms Inc. processes about 60,000 tonnes of fiddleheads a day, foraged from forests in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, as well as the northeastern United States. Meaning a fiddlehead picked in New Brunswick, processed in Quebec and sold in Ontario could have journeyed thousands of miles by the time it makes it to your plate.
So is selling wild food truly sustainable? Tim Brigham of the Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, believes so. He states in a Globe and Mail article “You’ve got people who are aware of how to harvest properly and others who just want to make a buck.” Mr. Brigham believes that certified wildcrafters can commercially harvest wild foods in way that preserves ecosystems. He is part of a group working to create wildcrafting guidelines and a national network of sustainable harvesters. “There are some wild foods that you could have everybody in the country eating and it could be sustainable,” he says, such as Saskatoon berries and wild raspberries.
Mr. Brigham may be right – time will tell. I hope so. But as the popularity of wild food grows so will competition for these ‘resources’. What happens if demand for wild raspberries takes off like ramps or fiddleheads – where will we draw the line? Will morally elevated wildcrafters agree to cap their earnings? To cap their harvests? How will they navigate the gray ethical area between running a business (which is about profit) and care-taking the land?
If some wildcrafters want to define themselves apart from foragers – fine, but insinuating foragers are guilty of pillaging the land, well, it seems a wee bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Seeing wild food as a communal resource to be freely shared has the potential to reshape the way we eat, farm and interact with the natural world. Making wild food a commodity isn’t going to change anything, much less protect it from exploitation.
And if wildcrafters are truly interested in promoting stewardship, is selling off the last remnants of the wild – really the best way to do so? I’m not sure, but as a forager my ethical bottom line is taking only what I need for myself, my loved ones, and my community, no more. And even then I worry I may be taking too much, because finding the sustainable balance is difficult enough without commerce entering the picture.