One of the greatest concerns about the growth of the wild food movement is that hordes of foragers will descend on the wilds, trampling delicate ecosystems while over harvesting native plants etc. etc. And while I hate to say it, I completely agree. So for this first blog post of the new year, I want to start not with a wild food recipe, but with a question I continually struggle with as a wild food educator. Is it ethical to continue to teach growing numbers of people to identify and harvest it in an ethical and sustainable manner – if they don’t have anywhere to go to safely, legally and ethically harvest those plants?
This question is rarely addressed directly within my teaching community even though the answer shapes the future of wildcrafting itself. Today courses, walks, online resources, websites and books on wild food, wildcrafting and foraging continue to proliferate, and while most offer responsible guides on how to “do no harm”, tread lightly, take little, never harvest rare plants, be respectful of the unceded territories, land, foods, sacred plants and practices of local First Peoples – is it enough? Because the most asked question I get from new and enthused wildcrafters is where can I go to forage?
Problem is, here in Victoria, as across North America, foraging is not permitted in parks whether they urban or rural, municipal, provincial or federal. So unless people are lucky (and privileged) enough to have a backyard, a friend with an acreage or can drive to remote Crown lands with permit to harvest – well, they don’t have many options. And since nearly half of the people who come to Gather walks and events live in urban spaces in apartments or condos – where can I reasonably tell them to go?
And here’s the moral rub. I know, deep inside, despite my warnings about the necessity of obtaining permissions, many will inevitably end up harvesting illegally. And while there seems little harm in picking plantain leaves from your local neighborhood park, I worry that turning a blind eye sets the stage not for protection of our endangered ecosystems, the lands and plants of our First Peoples, but for potential trampling, overharvesting and exploitation to occur. And I admit – I too am guilty. I have picked a few plantain, dandelion leaves and other plants in the weed ridden parks near my house!
It’s a slippery slope. And I worry, as the popularity of foraging increases, it will all inevitably lead to a backlash against the wild food movement itself, as is already happening in the UK and many parts of the world, which have begun to ban foraging on public lands due to rising environmental concerns.
And it’s why as interest in wild foods and medicines continues to grow exponentially each year, I think it’s going to take a whole lot more than teaching the “in and outs” of ethical foraging to protect our already overstressed natural environments.
I believe we have a responsibility as wild food educators to help provide safe, legal spaces for people to harvest the plants we encourage them to eat. Which is why three years ago Gather attempted to launch a Community Supported Foraging Plan (CSFP), a coalition of wild food educators and local foragers that would a) lobby the City to recognize foraging as a valued resource within urban food systems and b) grant designated pilot spaces in urban parks for public foraging.
The way I saw it, the CSFP would address one of the biggest misconceptions about wild food foraging – that it necessitates taking to the “wilds” at all. Because as most wild food educators know, the vast majority of wild edible plants and medicines grow within already urbanized spaces and city parks (where native plants and habitats for the most part no longer exist.)
Introduced here by the early settlers, many of these plants have now colonized local landscapes and are removed at great cost (and often with toxic chemicals) as invasive weeds from our parks. And while many are classified as “noxious” they are also the earth’s most ancient, nutritious and healing plants, brimming with the vital nutrients so depleted in in our modern food supply.
I saw the Community Supported Foraging Plan as a way to protect our wilder areas by encouraging foraging within urban parks (chosen in consultation with city naturalists) in already domesticated spaces. And I believed by providing safe, legal access to the bounty of freely available nutritious plants growing in municipal parks brought several key benefits, 1) help control the spread of invasive plants (by eating them) 2) strengthen local food security and 3) perhaps even improve community health!
But as I began to talk to municipal park representatives about the plan I ran into three main obstacles. Basically it went like this – 1) legalities – if the city condoned eating wild plants they would be held liable if someone poisoned themselves 2) lack of resources, currently there were no departments or funding for wild food education to ensure people understood which plants were safe to consume 3) allowing the wild edibles and medicines (otherwise known as weeds) to grow in municipal parks would be a violation of policies that require removal of these plants by provincial law. (BC Weed Control Act).
All this demanded much more time, lobbying and monetary resources than I had, so it was time to pull back and rethink my approach. It was pretty clear to me that until we (as wild food foragers and educators) work to legitimize foraging as a vital part of urban food systems (along with community and boulevard gardens, urban orchards and farms) the plan didn’t have a hope in hell of ever becoming a reality.
But thank Goddess, a new solution soon presented itself to me – and it was right under my nose. I realized I could bypass all this red tape because I didn’t need to lobby the city to create new spaces for community foraging – because they already existed. It’s just that almost no one in city, including most foragers, know they are there!
I knew this because the majority of my personal foraging occurs in the city’s “common ground” herbal gardens. Unlike community garden plots which are for private use, common ground gardens are designed to provide public access to the foods growing within them. Here wild edible plants (weeds) like clover, nettles, hawthorn, milk thistle, St.John’s Wort, dandelion, cleavers, plantain, chickweed, curly dock and garlic mustard – are not only permitted to grow – they are free and legal to harvest along with many other culinary and medicinal herbs, native berries, greens, blossoms, and fruits. And while I’m in one of these gardens harvesting nearly on a daily basis – I rarely see another soul.
So with the understanding that foraging in these gardens is perfectly legal, I unofficially launched a less ambitious version of my community supported foraging plan last year. In cooperation with my local common ground gardens, I began to teach residents about the bounty of nutritious and delicious foods, medicines and wild edibles (aka weeds) growing for free in the heart of their neighborhoods.
And this year, along with continuing these walks, my plan is create blog posts and maybe even videos (if my Patreon supporters grow!) documenting the plants in these gardens, exploring their uses and of course sharing a few tasty and magical recipes! I’d also like to include interviews with the originators and stewards of these gardens, so that they can share information on how we can create new common ground gardens in other neighborhoods as well.
And I’m hoping that if I’m successful, and more and more people access these spaces (and the enjoy bounty of fresh free tasty and nutritious fruits and greens) that demand will grow for even more common ground gardens. And voila, what will slowly come into being is a “community supported foraging plan”. A network of public spaces in urban municipal parks where people can legally forage for wild plants. Yay!
Of course, I realize encouraging people to exclusively forage in common ground gardens doesn’t erase the larger problem complexity of ethical and ecological issues involved in foraging, such as safety, sustainable harvest methods, respecting native ecosystems and the indigenous cultures of this land. So I’m going to be inviting wildcrafters, ecologists, ethnobotanists, permaculturists, foragers and First Nations teachers to share their unique knowledge through future Gather blog posts and videos. Because by better understanding the diversity of issues and points of view involved in ethical or sustainable foraging, the better chance we have of creating an ethical and sustainable future for wildcrafting itself. (I’ve provided some links to existing guides and articles at the bottom of this post)
Whether it will be enough to protect our wilder spaces I don’t know. But teaching people how to identify and harvest plants, no matter how ethically or sustainably, just doesn’t address the reality that there are so few opportunities to legally forage. And for me, it just doesn’t feel ethical. So now when I teach new students about the ecological, social and spiritual issues involved in foraging just a single plant, I have somewhere in good conscience to send them after. And that’s a beginning at least.
P.S. Please stay tuned – I’ll be announcing the dates and locations for the spring wild food walks soon. And if you want to support the growth of legal, ethical wildcrafting through the development of a “community supported foraging plan ” please consider becoming a Gather Patreon!
P.P.S. Here are a few links to explore ethical & sustainable wildcrafting. (If you know of some good ones that should be included here please let me know!)
- Exploring the opportunities and responsibilities of foraging on the West Coast
- Foragers encouraged to harvest wild foods and medicines sustainably around Vancouver
- Wildcrafting For Future Generations
- Ethical Foraging 101: What You Need to Know
- Wildcrafting: A “simple” life fraught with a host of complex ethical and practical considerations
- Wildcrafting Basics: Ethical Wildcrafting
- Wildcrafting Ethics