Eating Wild: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.  

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Cream of Dandelion 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. 

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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!

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Wild Food Dishes by Noma

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.

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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.

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Gathered with Love, Handcrafted with a Touch of Magic…

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Gather Victoria is proud to present its first collection of wild edibles and medicines for market. Inspired by the fragrance, flavour and medicinal power of evergreens, we’ve wildcrafted a selection of small batch, artisanal festive delights: aromatic infused sugars & finishing salts, forest cocktail bitters & conifer syrups, delicious elixirs & winter woodland teas filled with wild herbs, berries and blossoms. And if you want to know why cooking with conifers is so darn delicious (and good for you!) make sure you check out our last post here.

Gather Wild Edibles & Medicines are all gathered with love and handcrafted with a touch of magic. So come down and see us at Moonrise Creative‘s Winter Market this Sunday (Nov. 29th) at 17.5 Fan Tan Alley. We’ll be there from 11-4. Oh and did we mention we’ll also be offering some festive wildcrafted cookies! Get there early for best selection – limited small batch editions of each product.

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Thumprint Sugar Cookies made with Hawthorn berry jam, Osoberry & Oregon grape Jam and Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly.

Here’s some of what we’ll be offering….

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Grand Fir Elixir: Rejuvenating Winter Tonic

This delicious, medicinal conifer syrup can be taken straight up during cold and flu season, or used in cocktails, mixed into yogurt, sparkling water or tea.  Grand Fir, White Fir, Douglas Fir needles, organic orange and lemon peel, Vancouver Island honey, organic brown sugar, organic cinnamon, organic cardamom, organic nutmeg, cloves, grand fir tincture, alcohol.

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Grand Fir Herbal Finishing Salts

This savory, aromatic salt can be substituted for lemon or rosemary in recipes. The bright citrusy notes of grand fir blend with vitamin-rich, immune-boosting forest herbs, seeds and blossoms. Grand fir needles, sea salt, nettle seeds, oregon grape blossoms, sheep sorrel seeds, organic dried orange and lemon rind, wild onion and garlic.

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Grand Fir Finishing Sugars

Sprinkle this glittering organic grand fir finishing sugar on everything from mince pies to shortbread cookies. Bright bits of orange peel and rose hips elevate the citrusy notes of the grand fir and add a sweet fragrant kiss of Vitamin C to your favourite cup of tea. grand fir needles, organic orange, rose hips, organic cane sugar.

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Winter Woodland Tea: Immunity Booster

The healing powers of fragrant evergreens, woodland herbs, wild berries come to life in this forest tea. Will help support your immune system and combat flus and colds. Grand fir, White Fir, Douglas Fir, organic native blackberry leaf, organic rose hips, dried oregon grape berries, dried oregon grape blossoms, dried hawthorn berries, bayberries, organic wild rose petals, usnea, dried organic orange peel, organic cloves.

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Cedar & Fir Bath Salts

Allow the medicinal essential oils and soothing deep forest fragrance of cedar and fir to relax and rejuvenate you, body and soul. Place 1/3 cup in small cloth bag and throw in tub.  Cedar and Fir needles and cones, sea salt, epsom salts, dried calendula petals, wild rose petals, cedar essential oil.

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Grand Fir Cocktail Aromatics

Make your spirits bright! Add a few drops of our wildcrafted grand-fir aromatics to cocktails or sparkling water for seasonal digestifs and aperitifs. Use in place of vanilla extract in baking or add to honey for an immune-boosting syrup brimming with Vitamin C & mood-boosting aromatics. grand fir needles, alcohol.

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And many thanks to the amazing artist Alesha Davies Fowlie for our beautiful new logo! This was entirely papercut by hand and is so beautiful we are utterly thrilled. Check out Alesha’s wonderful work at her website AleshaFowlie.com.

 

 

 

Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War On Invasive Plants: Who Does The War Serve?

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good? To see my introduction to this series click here.

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In Part One and Two I explored evidence suggesting that, in the long run, invasive plants may be doing more good than harm. In this post I’ll ask – how big a role has the chemical industry played in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated – no matter the cost?

It is the official position of the US and Canadian government, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment.” And it means that, all told, billions of dollars are budgeted for the use of herbicides like glyphosate and other poisons.

Recommended targets for herbicides found in chemical industry publications include a slew of nutritious and medicinal plants such as: Hawthorn, Himalayan Blackberry, Gorse, Fennel, Cottonwood, Elderberry, Wild Rose, Milk Thistle, St. Johns Wort, Burdock, Chicory, Garlic Mustard, Curly dock, Dandelion, Lambs quarters, Plantain, Cleavers and Wild lettuce – and this is only a partial list. What will be left when they’re through? Native plants that have been potentially poisoned by the application of herbicides and pesticides on their neighbors? As well as the ecosystem itself?

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Timothy Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, reminds us that a “war — either real or imagined — must be waged in order to gather together public support and funding from the government.” And like any war it requires propaganda. And he wants us to note that emotionally charged words such as alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, are brought to us by the same companies whose products are being used to wage war on humans and the everyday war on pests – Monsanto, DuPont and the Dow Chemical Company. “These war factories are good at only two things: death and destruction.”

To this point, Toby Hemenway, author of The Permaculture City writes on his website “Quickly we see that unlike most scientific reports, papers in even academic journals such as Conservation Biology and Restoration and Management Notes bristle with xenophobic rhetoric: “all [species] should be treated as threats . . . unless proven otherwise.” Species are labeled “nefarious,” “stealing,” “stormtrooper plants,” and “intruders” that should be “weeded out” to “prevent their escape.” Hardly the language of objective science.”

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Loosely described, Invasion Biology is the study of invasive plants and the processes of species invasion. And according to authors Timothy Lee Scott,  Andrew Cockburn and David Theodoropoulos, it’s history is inextricably intertwined with the pesticide industry. Theodoropoulos is the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience and he is blunt. “Every time you hear the word invasive species – think Monsanto.”

Theodoropoulos’s book charts how in the past two decades a new notion arose to keep environmentalists busy, “the notion that plants and animals have a “natural” habitat, from which outsiders must be expelled”. And he presents evidence how this view was actively supported and promoted by the financial might of Monsanto, Dow and Dupont. Theodoropoulos states “Thirty years ago the greatest threats to nature were chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Now the greatest threats are wild plants and animals. And what do we use to fight them? Chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Who does this serve?”  

Recently Theodoropoulo’s claims that chemical company executives were founding members of many invasive species councils and organizations have been taken up by journalist Andrew Cockburn. In his article Weed Whackers: Monstanto, glyphosate and the war on invasive species in Harpers Magazine he writes, “During the Reagan era, when environmentalists were still imbued with the spirit of Earth Day, nobody worried about invasive species. Instead, well-organized, militant groups were busy fighting chemical pollution, nuclear power, shale-oil drilling, logging devastation, and other corporate onslaughts.”

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But in the 1990’s Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” And a new environmental cause was born.

“Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.” Jackson represented Monsanto on the Invasive Species Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2006 and co-edited some of the council’s founding reports.

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Cockburn’s article alleges another leader in the science of invasion biology Peter Raven had close ties to Monsanto. He chaired the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which considered the issue of invasive species and reported recommendations at the end of the year.  His company, Cockburn notes, The Missouri Botanical Garden “owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a “life sciences company” — one heavily invested in GMOs.”

Theodoropoulos and Boyce Thorne Miller (Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) argue that much of the “scientific” evidence that is typically used to describe ecological harm can be equally interpreted to indicate ecological benefits. They claim that rather than being an environmental problem, many “invaders” like Cordgrass and Purple Loosestrife have been shown to be important for revitalizing damaged ecosystems, repairing depleted soils, cleaning up toxics, and increasing the rate of evolution. Invasion, Bryce Miller and Theodoropoulos claim, is an entirely natural phenomenon, and is essential for creating and maintaining biological diversity.

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So when it comes to the research,Theodoropoulos charges that chemical companies are guilty of scientific misconduct when they misconstrue, make misleading statements and omit material facts – and are guilty of fraud when they profit from those statements.

Today it plain to see – if anyone looks as I did – that the chemical industry generously supplies educational and informational tools for the eradication of invasive species. And their presence, (i.e. instructing us how to “safely” use their products) is a common one at conferences and panels held by invasive species removal organizations here in BC and Canada.

Such as the upcoming North American Invasives Management Association in Vancouver BC. Its sponsors include Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Bayer and other chemical interests. So is it any coincidence that the keynote address “Toxicity and Pesticides. Weeding through new information about glyphosate and 2,4-D.” will be given by Dr. Len Ritter, Professor of Toxicology, School of Environmental Science, University of Guelph? Especially considering Ritter’s voice is one that cautions us not to get carried away with anti-pesticide hysteria?

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Dr. Len Ritter, professor of toxicology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, displays graphs contained in the Canadian Cancer Society’s latest report that show new cases and age-standardized incidence cancer rates in men are declining in Canada and staying about the same for women. Ritter was speaking to growers, field workers and industry partners in the P.E.I. potato industry on recently. © HEATHER TAWEEL/THE GUARDIAN

I grant you the jury may be far “from in” as to whether Theodoropoulos’s or Scott ’s (and many other scientists, biologists and ecologists) contentions that invasive species are beneficial and part of the healing processes of nature. But so is the jury still out on the potential negative effects these noxious chemicals could be having on our environment.

Whether we want to debate whether the glyphosate in Round-up is an actual or “probable carcinogen”, new evidence is surfacing that Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Agency knew glyphosate was a “probable carcinogen” thirty years ago.  And since that time it has been indicated in countless studies to be implicated in ADHD, Alzheimers, Autism, Brain Cancer, Breast Cancer, Celiac and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Kidney Disease, Depression, Heart isease, Parkinsons, Lou Gehrigs, Multiple Sclerosis, Reproductive issues, Miscarriages, Birth Defects, Obesity, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Liver disease, and Respiratory illnesses – and the list goes on. Diseases which have personally touched my family and friends.

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And remember too, this is only the estimated human impacts. What effect is the “controlled application” of products that “kill target alien species on contact or indirectly kill them or their offspring by damaging their essential life processes or ability to reproduce” —doing to the soil, the ground waters, the flora and fauna of the ecosystems in which it is being directly applied?

From what I understand, glyphosate works by disrupting an enzyme pathway essential to plants. And we’ve been told by the many chemical companies who use it – that since this pathway does not exist in animals, glyphosate is considered relatively safe for humans and wildlife. But even this too is being contested as this California lawsuit charges; that Monsanto is guilty of deliberate falsification and is concealing the fact that glyphosate is harmful to humans and animals.

Granted this all sounds conspiratorial and confusing to the extreme. And I’m certainly NOT implying that the whole field of invasion biology is without merit – but it’s pretty clear any research in which chemical companies like Monsanto have had a hand (either directly or indirectly) cannot be called neutral. I realize that while Theodoropoulos’s book is regarded by many as a “heroic expose on the corporate hijacking of an academic discipline”, there are many who point out that his theories are highly controversial, and that his research has yet to be published in credentialed scientific journals. 

But nonetheless I resonate with his contention that the misperception surrounding invasive plants “arises from fear born out of our disconnection to the cycles of nature.” This, Theodoropoulos believes,” is being exploited by corporations and governments and is leading to widespread herbicide use in wildlands.”

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So is it really so conspiratorial to suggest that the chemical industry is foisting anti-invasive propaganda on us that fattens their pockets? Perhaps here is good time to note, as journalist Cockburn did, that last year in the US alone, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Seems pretty profitable to me.

In the next post l’ll examine how pervasive the use of their toxic poisons in our city and provincial parks actually is. We’ll explore how and why their use is increasing – and where we as citizens are willing to draw the line between safety and risk.

Resources:

Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War On Invasive Plants: What is Pristine Anyway?

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?

The New and Ever-Changing Wild

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Camas in Garry Oak Meadows

In Part One we examined evidence suggesting that invasive plants may not be the evil interlopers we’ve made them out to be.  In this post I explore the question – are invasive plants truly destroying “pristine” natural environments?

Here in Victoria removing invasive plants from Garry Oak groves is a huge conservation priority. It is estimated less than 5% of Garry Oak systems remain in the Pacific Northwest (to which the Garry Oak is unique). Today we are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours of human resources to restore their ecosystems to a pre-colonized state. But as many First Nation leaders have pointed out, this idea of Garry Oaks groves as pristine “untouched” landscapes – just doesn’t hold water.

History shows that at the turn of the century, when local first peoples asked their new “government officials” for permission to continue harvesting Camas bulbs in Garry Oak groves, they were denied. This starchy sweet bulb was a beloved and important food source in their diet, and they were regularly altering Garry Oak ecosystems through controlled fires and other food cultivation techniques.

Preparing Camas Bulbs for Baking

Preparing Camas Bulbs for Baking

When Captain Vancouver arrived here in May 1792, he described “a landscape almost as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure grounds in Europe diversified with an abundance of flowers.” But as Cheryl Bryce, Lands Manager for The Songhee’s Nation points out in this article, this enchanting landscape was only there by virtue of a lot of hard work by her female ancestors who owned and managed the camas fields through seasonal burning, weeding and harvesting on a sustainable scale. “The only reason, they [the company] settled here was that we had done such a good job of keeping the soil rich.”

Nonetheless, it became illegal to gather traditional foods outside of reserve lands. This practice of gathering the foods, processing and eating them, as Bryce makes clear, “were what kept us alive both from the perspective of diet and culture.”

Today ‘restored’ Garry Oak Parks are regarded with reverence. No trampling of precious flora must occur, trails must be kept on, and no wildflowers picked. Is this “restoration” reflective of a ‘natural state’?

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Camas

What if, as Fred Pearce suggests in his book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation there is no one singular “pristine state” to return to? Geological studies clearly show that our environment is in constant flux, ice ages come and go, weather changes, comets hit the earth and cloud the sun.

Ecosystems are adapting, dying and being reborn all the time. There is no stasis in nature. Add to this the continuing impact of human occupation, and the fact that humans have been introducing alien foods and seeds to new lands for thousands of years, and you can see why its difficult to pin down any one time as epitomizing a true ‘original’ state.

Now I love the Garry Oak Groves as much as anyone. I do not want to see them vanish, but maybe, just maybe, by allowing invasive plants to thrive, mother nature knows exactly what she is doing? It may appear that plants like garlic mustard are the bully of the plant world – seeking to colonize and dominate  – but maybe it just looks that way to us in the short-term view of 40 or 50 years?

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Garlic Mustard

Author and esteemed herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner writes “We need to understand Nature doesn’t make mistakes, that Earth is, at minimum, 3.5 billions years old, and that earth has been engaging in this process a lot longer than our species has existed…We need to understand that processes that no scientists understand are occurring on both very large and very small scales… So, when we see “invasive’ plants moving wholesale into new ecosystems, we need to ask in all humility, What are they doing? What is their purpose?”

Timothy Scott in his book Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives makes the point that our fear that invasives will create monstrous monocultures just isn’t in line with nature’s tendency towards evolving complexity and creating biodiversity. Scott reminds us that all plants serve ecological functions for their environment. And his book and many others collect growing evidence suggesting that once invasive plants fulfill their function of repairing damaged soils and waterways (see my previous post) they will naturally die back

Now this doesn’t mean that all of the wildflowers will return or that Garry Oak groves will be restored to some “pre-colonized state”. It means the evolving of a new balance, a new eco-system, a new wild.” As nature has perpetually done. As Pearce writes, “we should be restoring ‘nature’s wildness, not trying to turn one moment in its past into an ossified museum relic….The new wild will be different but no less dramatic and wonderful than the old wild.” 

Is it time, gasp, to let the wildflowers go?

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As crazy as this sounds, I think it important now to return to the question  – are our attempts at invasive species removal (especially by chemical means) working against the remedial processes of mother nature? Are we letting our ‘feelings’ get in the way of even contemplating such an idea?

I’ve noticed that many see invasive plants as a metaphor for western occupation – just as we colonized the First Peoples, the plants we brought with us – are destroying the land.  Many believe, as I do, that protecting indigenous species is an important way of restoring some of the damage we’ve done.


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But Scott makes the point that “the very words alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, villainous” have created an emotional dichotomy of native plants versus an exotic one and a “good” plant versus a “bad” one…and it “cannot describe a scientific, ecological understanding of plant dynamics within complex ecosystems…and it leaves no room for the changing expressions of nature that have been evolving the genetics of biosystems and Earth’s inhabitants for eons.”

I’m not advocating that we all of a sudden let nature “go wild”. I fully acknowledge the importance of restoring traditional foods and medicines like Camas. I realize too that we are dealing with new “invaders” not found in pre-colonization landscapes. But my hope is that by merging indigenous ways of plant cultivation with non-toxic methods of invasive plant control (as suggested in Tao Orion’s book Beyond The War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration) we might find new, less toxic ways of dealing with invasives. (More on this in a future post.)

I am curious though, what the Lekwungen people think about the recent use of Round-up and Garlon in the Garry Oak Groves of Uplands Park (in and by the fields containing Camas) in their traditional territory – and I have invited the input of the Lekwungen Food Systems Project into this series. I’d like to know whether they’d like to see some of the budget currently spent in federal, provincial and municipal budgets on heribicides – redirected towards restoring indigenous methods of plant cultivation and control?

I acknowledge too, there are dangerous plants we want to keep at bay. Plants I’m not too fond of myself, like Poisonous Hemlock or The Giant Hogweed or English Ivy. But as we go about our processes of removal I think it’s also important to ask whether these plants are fulfilling necessary ecological functions of which we are currently unaware?

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Giant Hogweed

We need to find new ways of responsibly dealing with invasive plants in a way that puts the health of the ecosystem as it’s first priority – not whether it has been successfully denuded of invasives or represents some pristine prior state. How do we strike a balance when it comes to saving beloved wildflowers, restoring indigenous food systems or removing toxic or poisonous plants that threaten our safety? 

I don’t know, but again, I think it is a question worth asking. And is the increasing application of Round-up in endangered ecosystems (like our Garry Oaks) really the best we can do? By eliminating invasive plants in our environments with toxic chemicals proven to be harmful to life – could we be increasing stressors on our already struggling ecological systems?

In the next post I’ll explore growing allegations that the pesticide and herbicide industry has a vested financial interest in convincing us that their products are not only safe but necessary.  Just how big a role did the chemical industry play in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated? 

Resources:

Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War on Invasive Plants: Friend or Foe?

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This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question. Is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good? To read the introductory forward to this post click here.

Invasive Plants: Noxious Enemy or Remedial Friend?

Journalist Fred Pearce

Journalist Fred Pearce

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce was once a do-good invasive fighting conservationist. But after years spent reviewing the emerging research presented in his book The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation, Pearce concluded that the current view of invasives as aggressive interlopers spoiling pristine, natural ecosystems is based on “outdated intellectual sources”.

pesticidebookInstead Pearce claims, new evidence suggests that introduced alien species usually die out or settle down to become model eco-citizens. But in the meantime, Pearce writes that “far from being nature’s destroyers, aliens may be its reinvigorators, its salvation”…they are “natures best chance of healing the damage done by chainsaws and ploughs, by pollution and climate change.”  

Yet according to The National Invasive Species Council, invasive plants are far from our friends. They are “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” But many prominent scientists, biologists and conservationists disagree. 

The esteemed evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in this article, published in Harvard University’s Journal Arnoldia that the “romanticized notion that old inhabitants [natives] learn to live in ecological harmony with surroundings, while later interlopers tend to be exploiters” is “romantic drivel.”

This article in Yale Environment 360 explores the dissent among biologists when it comes to the long-held orthodoxy that alien species are inherently bad. “In their contrarian view, many introduced species have proven valuable and useful and have increased the diversity and resiliency of native ecosystems.”

And in this essay, “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins,” in the journal Nature, over twenty conservationists agree that “Policy and management decisions must take into account the positive effects of many invaders,” and they advocate that these decisions be based on “sound empirical evidence and not on unfounded claims of harm caused by non-natives. Another valuable step would be for scientists and professionals in conservation to convey to the public that many alien species are useful.”

And yet, as Andrew Cockburn’s fascinating article in Harpers Magazine titled Weed Whackers: Monsanto, glyphosate and the war on invasive species reveals, “It is the official position of the federal government, as expressed by the State Department, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment, affecting all regions of the United States and every nation in the world.” And it means that “Last year, the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.”

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This figure attests to the gargantuan use of pesticides and herbicides on invasive plants in the US alone, never mind Canada and the rest of the world. Just how the science of invasion biology came to be, and how it is deeply entwined wth the chemical industry – are explored in the next post. (see here)

So is this chemical war on invasive plants warranted? Are invasive plants our foes or our friends?  Obviously there is already a great deal of information out there about why invasives must be eradicated, so I won’t spend time on it here. But lets explore some of the latter evidence.

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Herbalist Timothy Lee Scott , author of Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives agrees with the views put forward by Pearce.

He believes that the view of invasive plants as disruptive “is no longer supported by a scientific, ecological understanding of plant dynamics within complex eco-systems”. Scott’s book compiles a wide variety of studies demonstrating that many invasive plants are actually cleaning up the mess we’ve left behind, healing damaged landscapes, breaking down and eliminating toxins, renewing and restoring degraded soil and waterways. 

Scott writes: “Imagine a forested landscape that has recently been cleared of all the trees and plants that have commingled there for hundreds of years. Bare earth is revealed, watercourses changed, and all species, both visible and invisible, have felt this trauma. Delicately layered soils are fractured and opened. They then have to make adjustments to cope and begin to rejuvenate the environment that has been upturned…”

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Scott continues, “…nature does not wish to expose the soil; it always tries to cover it with plants. These plants fill in all spaces that provide sunlight; they access different degrees of brightness on all planes of plant structure, from the soil to the forest canopy… Each has an innate form and function to help fill in the gaps and rehabilitate the devastated area…The incredible ability of pioneering species to cover wounded landscapes in such prolific numbers makes them easily misunderstood as invasive intruders.”

The succession of pioneer plants (many of which are defined as invasive species) prepare “the soil for other species to follow, first by protecting land from further erosion, then by enriching the soil with large quantities of biomass and providing essential nutrients with uptake capabilities; and finally by balancing microbes in the soil ecology.”

Boyce Thorne Miller (Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) argue that much of the “scientific” evidence that is typically used to describe ecological harm can be equally interpreted to indicate ecological benefits. Her presentation at the 32nd National Pesticide Forum, April 11-12, 2014 at Portland State University, presented evidence that many “invaders” like Cordgrass have been shown to be important for revitalizing damaged ecosystems, repairing depleted soils, cleaning up toxics, and are essential for creating and maintaining biological diversity.

With this in mind, it could be suggested that invasive plants are not evil marauders intent on colonizing and dominating local eco-systems.They are prolific because they are a response to our relentless development and urbanization. As we merrily mow along chopping down the trees and upturning soils – mother nature is right beside us, sending more and more ‘weeds’ to repair the damage we’ve done.

Scott’s book proposes another startling radical idea – that nature is not only seeking to heal her landscapes – but the life forms that inhabit her. Scott suggests that in the wake of environmental devastation and diminishing plant life, mother nature quickly responds by providing highly nourishing and healing foods to the animals which depend on her sustenance. And that includes us.

He writes: “The deteriorating health of our forests is analogous to the current weakening of the human immune system…People, like the earth itself, are overburdened with toxic and infectious burdens, and all ecosystems cope with poisoned and traumatized influences”. So Scott sees it as no coincidence that nature provides us (and wildlife) with prolific nutrient foods packed with deeply healing medicinal components.

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the dreaded Japanese Knotweed

Scott also cites research conducted by author and esteemed herbalist Stephen Buhner who believes there may be a “medicinally significant connection between pandemic plants and diseases”. While researching plant candidates for treating Lyme disease, Buhner discovered that Knotweed (currently the number one target of conservation groups like the Coastal Invasive Committee) had spread throughout North America in nearly the same trajectory and at the same rate as Lyme disease. Buhner’s research suggests that Knotweed’s potent properties as an antimicrobial (amongst many others) makes it a useful treatment for emerging diseases such as Lyme, West Nile encephalitis, SARS, hepatitis C, HIV”.  

Are we poisoning the very plants that nature has sent to help nourish and heal us? In her article Re-Thinking Invasive Plants, herbalist Rose Barlow wrote “Noxious weeds” like dandelion, burdock and garlic mustard are nutritional powerhouses that offer themselves to us humans in super-abundance to help us to nourish our depleted bodies, leach environmental toxins, and otherwise help us to cope with our industrialized world. Yet instead of receiving the gifts these plants bring with them, alien species are villanized and portrayed as terrorists.”

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Eradicating Knotweed

By allowing invasive plants to thrive – is nature making a mistake? Claude William Genest of Green Mountian Permaculture Institute has written ” The Nobel prize-winning “Gaia Theory” teaches us that the earth is like a body: it self-organizes, self-repairs, and self-reproduces. It is a single, self-regulating living system that organizes itself in such a way as to maintain and create the conditions that are suitable for life…Similarly, invasive plants are also operating in the context of the whole-system. Take a closer look: they are absolutely specialized at cleaning up our mess.”

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So who truly knows best? Us or mother nature? Are our conservationist efforts to restore local eco-systems to their original ‘natural’ state doing more harm than good? The jury may be out on whether or not in the long run we are hindering mother nature’s remedial processes, but I’m pretty sure applying millions of dollars worth of toxic chemicals to our landscapes each year fits the definition of harm – right now.

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All told, their widespread use in our city and provincial parks, our highways and byways, truly boggles the mind – and just how widespread they are, will be the subject of another post. So I have to say, from where I sit, it looks like the definition of invasive plants as “likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” better describes our own activities and impact on the landscape.  

In Part Two I’ll further explore why some believe that the sacred heart of conservation ecology – that invasive plants are destroying pristine natural environments, ‘endangering’ indigenous eco-systems and disrupting our attempts at ‘restoration’ – may be shortsighted. 

Resources:

Ending the Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War on Invasive Plants. Now.

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?

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I’ve had it. On a recent foray into Uplands Park I was horrified to discover the landscape literally dotted with notices of herbicide applications of Glyphosate (think Round-Up) and Garlon. This was an area that I had previously believed was “pesticide free”. Now a herbicide is a pesticide by definition, so I gotta tell you, how can it be that everywhere I go, our local parks, crown forests or city green spaces, edible, nourishing and medicinal plants (otherwise known as invasive weeds) are being “treated” with noxious chemicals?

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In past three years I’ve been seeing more and more of these pesticide and herbicide application notices, so I wasn’t surprised to read in Pesticide Free Future that since 2012 “every BC municipality suddenly had an official plan for removal of invasive plants – specifically with herbicide – which seemed counter to the cosmetic pesticide bylaws being passed.”   Is this true – and if so, why?

Are we being lulled into a false sense of security by the CRD and Vancouver Island municipalities that promote “pesticide free” policies or even ban them for home use, all the while using them in our parks?

Why? What is the rationale? Well, as I’ve discovered it seems these chemicals are being used in a “war” against invasive plants which are deemed by the Canadian government to be one of the greatest “threats” to our environment. And one of the advocated solutions seems to be chemical control which chemical company publications tell us is more “time-efficient and cost-effective” than manual or mechanical removal methods, “especially on large sites”. 

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Now I fully acknowledge I’m no ecological expert. I’m just an ordinary citizen who is not yet sure whether chemicals proven to be harmful to life are actually benefiting our native ecosystems. But as I’ve discovered, questioning the conservationist ideology that invasive plants must be eradicated – at whatever the cost – is as close to modern sacrilege as it gets.

I’ve literally encountered eye widening shock and fist shaking rage when daring to suggest that these “weeds” have an ecological purpose of their own. And I’ve been called everything from a “nitwit” to “dangerous” to a “science denier” and been banned from wild food facebook groups for voicing these views.

But I’m not plucking my ideas from thin air. In the past few years we’ve seen the publication of many books, highlighting growing research in the fields of evolutionary biology, plant and soil ecology, bioremediation, plant pharmacology and climate change. And they suggest that invasive plants are actually healers, helping cleanse and repair damaged soils and waterways. In other words, they’re cleaning up the mess we’ve left behind.  

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The Dreaded Garlic Mustard

This research shows that our fear that invasive plants will choke, overtake and colonize vast areas, killing off endangered native species in the process, may be shortsighted. It suggests that once invasive plants fulfill their ecological function (to heal the landscape) that a natural balance would eventually occur, these plants will naturally die back. (I explore these ideas in following posts)

Today government and large conservationist agencies inform us that “controlled applications” of these chemicals is supposedly safe. Or at least worth the cost and the risk – when it comes to saving our endangered, indigenous species. According to a publication put out by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to stamp out Garlic Mustard “Glyphosate is widely considered the most appropriate herbicide for use on conservation lands”. Yet they also note here “The presence of synthetic chemicals in the environment, especially those designed to control unwanted species (insecticides and herbicides), and the acute and long-term effects of those chemicals on wildlife and humans have been of concern since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962.”

Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, is deeply concerned. And in this series we’ll discover why she and many other scientists are disturbed at the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides used on invasive species. Thorne Miller states,“Basically, the cure is worse than the disease”.

Because as we’ll learn in a future post, the breadth of their use is, simply put, shocking – well, at least to me. And while we’re willing to tolerate short term death and destruction for long term rewards, fact is, the research just isn’t in. In the long haul, whether our native-ecosystems will benefit from the application of these chemicals – remains to be seen.

But who clearly is benefiting meanwhile is the chemical industry.  Our war on invasive plants is pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of companies who create deadly poisons both for human warfare and for the everyday war on pests: Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical Company.

Caption:Farmers Matt Wiggeim, right, and Cody Gibson mix Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide near a corn field in Kasbeer, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, June 13, 2011. Corn fell to a one-month low and soybeans declined on speculation that favorable weather will boost yields in the U.S., the world's biggest grower and exporter. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Conservationist David Theodoropoulos’s book, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, conducted an examination of invasive-plant science and reveals a long-standing connection between invasion biology and the pesticide industry. Companies, as Theodoropoulos points out, which have a great deal invested in convincing us that invasive plants are our ‘enemy”. Companies, with the financial might to pay for their own ‘scientific research’ demonstrating why dangerous invasive plants must be eradicated.

And while it might sound conspiratorial, I think it bears asking if the profitable war on invasives might dry up if we woke up and realized that the enemy is really our friend?

In my own wild food community many have been extremely upset by these articles. And while many agree that pesticide use is not the answer – they ask that I stop questioning the very tenets of conservation itself. They feel these posts are undermining the cause that many have dedicated their lives to – restoring threatened native ecosystems.

But how to question the use of noxious chemicals in our wilds – without questioning the rationale that lies behind their use? I’ve already been told – countless times – that while no one “likes” to use them, they are a necessary evil – for the reasons I’ve described.

It is my deeply held conviction that I owe it to the earth and animals I love, to ask these questions. I want a full accounting of the use of pesticides in our city greenspaces and forests by our parks and municipal representatives. I want to know how are they assessing the risk of potential long-term negative effects to the ecosystem, animals and human life? 

It’s not as if there aren’t methods of ‘weed’ control. I’d like to see some the budgets allocated for chemical control be redirected towards alternative non-toxic methods of invasive plant control, as described in Tao Orion’s book: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.

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 And so I ask you as environmental activists, conservationists, ecologists, wild crafters, herbalists, permaculturists, biologists and those who committed to the stewardship of the land, to have courage to ask what are often difficult questions. Are we truly sure that noxious compounds – often applied again and again in the same areas, do not eventually accumulate in the soil, run into waterways or end-up consumed by local wildlife? I believe the stakes are high, and I personally want to be sure – that what we are doing is right. 

So the big question is this – are we spending millions of federal, provincial and municipal tax dollars to counteract the remedial efforts of mother nature and poisoning food, medicinal herbs and our local environments in the process?

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In the next post I’ll be delving into the research suggesting that a) invasive plants are fulfilling essential ecological functions, b) that our efforts to remove them is weakening our eco-systems and c) that the toxic war we are waging against invasive plants, is a battle being waged against nature herself.

Here is Part One – Invasive Plants: Noxious Foe or Remedial Friend?

Resources:

Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging

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 Most of us equate food security with supporting community gardens and urban farms. But there is a vast cornucopia of nourishing free food already growing abundantly in our parks, neighborhoods and backyards—right now. Food that could be meaningfully and significantly supplementing the dietary needs of community residents and families—vitally enhancing food security.

That’s why we want to encourage Victoria’s mayor and city council to consider adding a new initiative, Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging to Section 8 of the draft Strategic Plan to “Enhance and Steward Public Spaces, Green Spaces and Food Systems”.

The Eating: Wild Community Supported Initiative  (EWSCI) is composed of a coalition of wild food educators, First Nation indigenous food experts, wild food artisans, and chefs, ethnobotanists, ecologists and environmentalists, food security organizations and wild food enthusiasts. The EWSCI has two prongs, a) developing resources for wild food community education and b) forming partnerships between foragers, community groups promoting food security and local government, parks and urban farms.

Our mission is to give wild foods a place at our tables and a place of their own in our emerging local food systems, the “agri-hood” of community gardens, urban farms, boulevard gardens and food forests, that enable community residents and families in their local environments to feed and nourish themselves.

The Eating Wild CSF Initiative seeks to:

  • Support wild food education and community educational events in tandem with local community centers and city parks, to teach residents not only how to safely identify, sustainably harvest wild foods, but to how to prepare, preserve and cook them as well.  This would be accomplished through Wild Food Walks, Wild Food Community Kitchens, Wild Food Dinners, Wild Food Festivals etc. Community Wild Food Guides and Maps could also be developed.
  • Set aside protected spaces in City parks for community food foraging. Currently foraging is not permitted in city parks. The Eating Wild CSF Initiative requests that community foraging pilot projects be set up in local parks and public green spaces.  These areas will be chosen in consultation with city naturalists to minimally impact endangered plants and bio-systems such as Garry Oak ecosystems.  We will also seek to form pilot partnerships with local urban farms, to organize events in which foragers could help farmers cut costs by weeding their fields.
  • Promote the health of wild plants and green spaces by reducing the expensive use of herbicides in our local parks for invasive plant control. We encourage foragers to form partnerships with parks to keep invasive plants under control by harvesting them instead-like this garlic mustard “Pest to Pesto Festival” – and many others popping up across North America.

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Why Wild Foods?

1) Vital Food Supplement

Today more than ever, as the nutrient levels of our food supply plummet and food prices skyrocket—we need wild foods. Through industrial agriculture we have not only stripped our cultivated fruit and vegetables of important nutrients to satisfy our taste for sweeter and starchier foods, our soils have become so over-farmed that they are depleted of the critical nutrients we need to thrive. However, wild foods—brimming with vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants in such short supply in our conventional diet—are the world’s most nutritionally potent superfoods.

Far from a recent food ‘trend’, wild foods once constituted a kind of “medicinal cuisine” enjoyed by our ancestors around the world. Even after agriculture was well-established, wild foods continued to be consumed for centuries for their health-promoting properties. As herbalists have long known, many wild foods are so chock full of healing nutrition they are a veritable medicine. And many will tell you that it is no coincidence that modern diseases have run rampant as wild foods disappear from our diet.

Wild foods are the originators of all fruits, grains and vegetables, and as author of The Green Pharmacy, James Duke, PhD, reminds us, wild foods are the “plants that our ancestors ate—that humans evolved to eat”. By eating wild, we are eating unadulterated, seasonal, nutritionally balanced foods in their original form—as nature intended. And as wild food forager Sunny Savage in her popular TedX Talk urges – consuming just one wild plant a day can go a long way in improving our health.

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 2) Part of New Localized Food Systems

“Foraging skills, coupled with access to land- local parks, community gardens, back yards or vast wilderness- equals food sovereignty.” Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.

And yes, there is more than enough to go around. Most “wild foods” are not rare endangered indigenous species, but rather invasive plants(i.e. dandelions, plantain, garlic mustard, hawthorn berries, blackberries) that were introduced here by the early settlers as food. But today the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to eliminate (often with herbicides) these nutrient-rich foods from our lawns, gardens, parks and green spaces. Of course, wild foods will never feed populations en masse, but they have been historically used—and can be again—as a vital food supplement to enrich all of our diets.

Wild foods grow everywhere in our urban and suburban neighborhoods yet they remain a mostly untapped resource. Scottish forager Mark Williams  calls these plants “superabundant”. Meaning, “if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested.” Add to this bounty, the fruit produced by tree’s on city streets and boulevards, and feral fruit trees in parks, especially those that were once farmland like the fields surrounding Beaver Lake Park.

Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are currently considering ways in which ways to allow food harvesting on public land. Some Seattle parks not only tolerate foraging, they actually teach foraging classes. In California, The Berkley Food Institute has launched Forage Berkley which maps the availability of wild and feral edible plants in urban neighborhoods and provides community education – and they confirm that “there are mountains of wild edible plants in urban food deserts in the Bay Area.”

These initiatives are part of a shift in cities which are preparing for climate changes and rising fuel prices, leading many local food security activists to look to foraging to increase the resilience of their food supply

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3) Bring Us Into Harmony with Nature

As foragers, our relationship within nature- our complete interdependence- becomes crystal clear…With this comes the rewarding responsibility of caretaking the land and the plants that feed us.”Dina Falconi Foraging and Feasting.

Foraging promotes community health and well-being through more than just nutrition. Countless studies show that spending time in nature reduces blood pressure, anxiety and stress levels. And as David Suzuki points out (see here) – “with more than 80 per cent of Canadians now living in urban settings, many of us lack a meaningful, regular connection with the natural environment that sustains us. Getting in touch with the outdoors has another great benefit: those who know and love nature work harder to protect it.”

Foraging means learning to harvest what nature gives us in time, it teaches us to observe the cycles of the seasons, the changing foliage, the flora and fauna. We begin to gain a deeper ecological understanding of our local environment – and we believe this motivates us to become better stewards of nature  – especially the nature that lies just outside our front door.

And as Melissa Poe, an environmental anthropologist  states “the more people understand about how the ecosystems work, the more respectful they will be of our parks.” Poe’s research demonstrates that educated foragers help protect urban land, they “enjoy greater connection with their local environment, and as a part of the gathering process, share and maintain significant local environmental knowledge.”

This element (the connections between nature and people) is among the most deeply significant motivations for people to engage in the practice of foraging…It’s an intimate connection. You can go out and you can appreciate [urban nature] and say “oh, my isn’t it pretty,” but when you interact on this level, when it becomes part of your pantry, when it’s part of what you eat, now you have a relationship. You’re not an outsider observer. It’s not this ‘other’ thing. It’s part of you and you are part of it.” (Seattle Forager)

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In Conclusion

That is why Gather is launching The Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative because it paves a path towards a future, as Poe suggests, “in which foragers assert their rights to the natural resources that support their wild food and health practices”. We believe foraging supports a sustainable connection between people, land and food that nourishes us and brings us into “right relationship” with nature.  We envision a future in which wild plants are valued as an important community resource in localized food systems.

Gather is launching The Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative because we believe foraging supports a sustainable connection between people, land and food that nourishes us and brings us into right relationship with nature.  We envision a future in which wild plants are valued as an important community resource in localized food systems. We teach Victoria residents not only to safely identify the many nourishing foods that grow in their neighbourhoods, city streets and backyards, but how to sustainably harvest, cook, prepare, preserve—and eat them as well. Reviving health-promoting wild food culinary traditions (as well as creating delicious new ones!) Gather explores the local terroir, season by season.

Gather wants to bring wild food education to each neighborhood in the Greater Victoria area. So please join us! If you are interested in participating in the EWCFI please contact us and let us know. We also ask that you consider emailing a link of this post to City Councillors before March 31st, urging the City support to the Eating Wild: Community Supported Foraging Initiative (councillors@victoria.ca.) Or email a link of this post to Ben Isitt bisitt@victoria.ca  and Jeremy Loveday jloveday@victoria.ca directly. Thank-you!