The Case Against Foraging – a big read

IN

Mark Williams and his website are rich sources of knowledge about the identification, distribution and edibility of wild plants. He’s a full time tutor on the subject, who we’ve been pleased to work closely with since 2014 [see Forager Profile: Mark Williams]. He’s a founder member of the Association of Foragers. Here he examines the consequences of our food choices, commercialism, conservation, re-wilding, the law, and how foraging fits into this increasingly politicised picture.

MW: Foraging is on the rise. What was once considered a niche, eccentric activity is becoming, if not mainstream, then an ever more common pastime and food source for all sorts of people. Chefs, survivalists, bartenders, herbalists, but most of all everyday folk who want to engage with nature through what they eat and drink, are tuning in to our wild larder. But as numbers of people foraging grow, some individuals and organisations are challenging whether our green spaces can absorb this growing interest in the fruits of our forests, hedgerows, parks and shores.

Its an important question, usually asked by people with the very best of intentions, and one that most thoughtful foragers ask themselves.

What is “natural”? – The Shifted Baseline

“When they arrived in California, early Western settlers (notably John Muir) thought they were looking at an untouched, pristine wilderness. In fact they were looking at a closely managed landscape in which human’s coexisted with their fellow species” M. Kat Anderson – Tending The Wild

It is harder than you might think to say what is “natural”. Most people’s notions of “natural” or “wild” are seriously skewed. Unless you are on a very high mountain top, or perhaps a desolate bit of coast, hardly any of what you are looking at is “natural” or “wild” – it has been shaped by human activity. Most people’s idea of the “countryside” is hardly more natural than a city centre. Hedgerows, fields, forests and even hill tops do not escape the impact of farming. The butterflies and birds in a garden are there no more ‘naturally” than the introduced plants on which they feed. The largest displays of edible fungi in the autumn often occur under modern plantations, not ancient forests.

If we are to consider the “impact of foraging on nature”, we should start from a sensible perception of homo sapiens’ complex interaction with nature for the last 1.5 or so million years. Humans have constantly modified the landscapes and the species among which they dwell. Whether we like it or not, we always have been, and always will be, modifiers of our environment – or “keystone species“.

Often (but not always) human impact has been detrimental to ecosystems and it is easy to understand the collective guilt that many feel for this. However, there are very few who feel guilty enough to forgo the energy, food and accommodation upon which they rely, and which place a heavy burden on Earth’s resources.

The Consequences of Food Choices

Everything we eat and drink has consequences for our planet. There are no exceptions.

But we can still make choices about the scale of that impact. Large scale farming and agribusiness – which remains by far and away the biggest source of most people’s nutrition – often degrades ecosystems through use of chemical fertilisers, ploughing, habitat destruction, fossil fuel dependency, packaging, food miles etc. Smaller scale (perhaps organic) farming has less impact, but is still far from “natural”, and eating an organic diet usually demands considerably more food miles. Growing vegetables in your garden has much less impact, but still alters the balance of plants and dependent species in a locale. Even the strictest Jainist diet of windfall fruit denies that fruit to invertebrates and the web of life that depends upon them.

The impact that foraging has on green spaces fits into this hierarchy somewhere above eating windfall, below planting out a garden with introduced species, and a very long way below any type of farming. Our food system is hugely complex and extremely difficult for anyone to navigate with a clear conscience, but very few sources of sustenance are “lower impact” than wandering through a landscape thinning abundance.

Foraging forces us to confront the immediate impact of our food choices – not defer and hide their consequences.

To thoughtful foragers I say: be proud and never, ever apologise for your wild diet.

Juniper cones

Protect Rare Species?

I am regularly challenged about the potential negative impact of foraging on wild plants, fungi and seaweeds. I’m glad of this, because it means people care. But while these concerns are well intended, they tend to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what foraging is.

What is foraging? – my definition

Foraging is not about seeking out rare resources, but about recognising abundance and knowing what to do with it. Rare things take too long to find and are seldom a sensible quarry for enquiring appetites. The vast majority of foraging focuses on hyper-abundant resources such as nettles, dandelions, brambles, chickweed, sloes, ground elder, or less ubiquitous species that are abundant in a particular locale (eg. sea buckthorn – a nuisance plant in some areas, absent in others).

That is not to say that some ecosystems aren’t reliant upon this very abundance, but it is humans, especially those that forage, that open up habitats, disperse seeds, and create opportunities for other species to thrive. Humans are a keystone species, and those that forage are the cement that holds the keystone in place.

What’s the evidence?

While the thought of ever more people taking to the woods, shore and hedgerows to gather wild plants sounds intuitively threatening to nature, I’ve looked hard and have found no scientific evidence that modern foraging practices have significantly harmed or diminished any of the species or ecosystems they harvest from. Given it is often scientific (or, more often, pseudo-scientific) types that make these accusations, you might expect to see some sort of evidence. It seems odd that some self-proclaimed nature-lovers fixate on foragers while turning a blind eye to habitat loss, and its infinitely bigger impact on species diversity.

Foraging and the precautionary principle

Many old-school conservationists adhere to the “precautionary principle”. This states that, where the impact of an activity is unknown, do nothing. Given that the infinite complexity of nature makes its almost impossible to understand the full repercussions of any one activity, this is something of a dead end. If we can agree that all humans must eat something, and that all food has consequences, using the precautionary principle to justify not eating what is abundant locally seems like a huge own goal.

Most foragers are sensible, and entirely open to the idea that some foraging practices may have more impact on ecosystems than others. Where this can be demonstrated they will change their practice – after all, the interests of the forager and the foraged are aligned. This attitude is enshrined in the guiding principles of the Association of Foragers, to which I belong: “We undertake to observe how species respond to harvesting methods. Where a harvesting method is beneficial* or neutral to a species and/or location we will share that knowledge among interested parties and other foragers. Similarly, in the event of a particular harvesting technique proving detrimental to a species and/or location, we will alter our practice accordingly and share that knowledge among interested parties and other foragers” – Association of Foragers, Principle 2.4  *Please note: thoughtful harvesting is most certainly beneficial to some species (eg. by dispersing seeds or spores), and more often to a wider ecosystem (eg. the removal of japanese knotweed).

Can foraging actually help conservation?

To defend ecosystems humans must learn to value them. Foraging connects us not only to the intrinsic food and medicinal value of plants, fungi and seaweeds, but increases our intimacy with the places in which we forage them. Many of those that preach “look but don’t touch” place nature on a pedestal that further distances humans from the natural world. They claim a love of nature, but appear to have no real intimacy with it. They’d sooner watch tigers on TV than explore seaweeds on the shore. They’ll campaign for rain forests, but not to save that green space on the edge of town being bulldozed for a shopping centre.

Foraging naysayers seem, to me, a little behind the times. Conservation organisations are increasingly recognising the power of foraging to engage people with green spaces. I work extensively with Scottish Natural Heritage, The National Trust for Scotland and the RSPB, as well as schools and community organisations to teach people how to engage more closely with nature through foraging. At least half of my fungi forays are spent educating people on mycelium and its crucial role in forest ecosystems. People come to learn to find food, and leave intoxicated by the magic and beauty of mycelium.

“A child who grows up with the feeling that nature isn’t to be touched soon develops a feeling of indifference, and indifference to nature is the greatest of all threats to her.” Foraging is a key tool in restoring this vital connection.

Foraging for Money?

Gathering wild ingredients to sell rather than to consume one’s self gets a lot of stick – even from foragers. I have been on both sides of this divide myself.

In my youth I sold chanterelles for beer money. Later I worked as a commercial forager/salesman, before choosing to specialise in teaching rather than harvesting. Poacher-turned-gamekeeper, for a while I disparaged commercial harvesting. Nowadays, while I still think foraging for one’s self and family works best, I now see no reason why commercial harvesting should be a problem per se.

How common is commercial-scale foraging?

Let’s be clear – hardly anyone in the UK currently makes a full-time income from wild harvesting. Please, please disregard tabloid press pieces about “hoards of Eastern Europeans pillaging our forests” for vast profits. They are sensationalist, never based on evidence, and often racist in tone. If you get your information from this sort of press you’d probably be better off listening to Nigel Forage, a plant-slant spoof on recent right wing politics in this country. (You may recognise writer Andy Hamilton)

A real example from a friend who forages for pleasure and profit in the New Forest is rather more illuminating: “A few years ago when I was out in the forest I was “tipped off” by a couple that there was a gang of East European pickers nearby with walkie talkies. I’ve never seen gangs of pickers before so I went looking. It turned out that the “gang” was in-fact two Polish families out mushroom hunting and the “walkie talkies” were rather old mobile phones. They stopped for a picnic and I had a chat with them. I guess it helped that I’m half Polish but they certainly weren’t picking to sell. We talked mushrooms and I saw that they had about 10 ceps and a dozen assorted boletes between them. Hardly a lot! They were just out enjoying the autumnal sunshine doing what many British people would like to be able to do but don’t have the knowledge“.

I’m not suggesting that nobody forages for financial gain, but the vast majority of money made from wild harvests is through seasonal piecework. This is seldom well-paid given the time, knowledge, graft and skill involved. For others wild harvests are the basis, or more likely a strand, of micro businesses, where value is added to abundant harvests – eg. hedgerow jam, elderberry liqueur, botanical gin. Personally I’d rather give my money to nimble, high quality rural micro-businesses than to supermarkets and agribusiness.

The Food Business

Given that all food has consequences, isn’t this a better food choice in the interest of rural economies and the natural world? Even if some people are making money from wild harvests, is there really anything wrong with that compared to the alternatives?

Businesses that forage their own ingredients from the wild often give back way more than they take. My friend Rupert who runs a fantastic wild food pop-up restaurant around Edinburgh was recently sworn and shouted at by a passer-by for picking primrose flowers for making wine. They were so busy being furiously righteous that they couldn’t hear him explaining that he’d recently planted several hundred primroses around the locale.

(For some reason many myths circulate around the legality of picking primrose flowers: for the record, they are super-abundant in most areas and there are no prohibitions on picking them, other than than an arcane bye-law in Northern Ireland).

The Botanist Gin takes the conscious decision not to harvest Islay juniper due to its scarcity, but through The Botanist Foundation is working to reintroduce it to around the island.

Limits set by law

Commercial foragers are subject to the law of the land, which infer that landowner’s permission should always be given for commercial harvests. Miles Irving – a wild food supplier and well-respected author from Kent – is looking to challenge some of those creaky old laws which stumble and falter between basic human rights and contrived ideas of “ownership” of wild species.

Nevertheless, relationships bewtween land owners and foragers need not be strained or adversarial and are more often than not warm and mutually beneficial. Win-win acts of stewardship, such as thinning a riverbank of reedmace, cuttiing japanese knotweed or pulling ground elder are common.

There may come a time when certain wild harvests are so popular that they come under ecological pressure in some locations. If that happens I expect it will be the nimble diets and businesses of foragers that will be suggesting alternative harvests and strategies, long before the cumbersome, grinding wheels of law come to address it.

Rewilding Humans?

The Rewilding Movement has grown rapidly over the last few years. In the UK it grabs column inches for plans to reintroduce wolves and beavers, but it is about so much more than the headline acts.

“Rewilding” represents a departure from traditional approaches to conservation that require steady human intervention to, say, support chough populations on Islay, or exterminate grey squirrels in Galloway. It seeks to restore whole ecosystems rather than focussing on individual species. The wolves and beavers feature not because they are beautiful and exciting, but because they are keystone species that modify the behaviour of other animal and plant species – modifications that cascade down throughout ecosystems.

For example, reintroducing apex predators such as wolves modifies the grazing behaviour of its prey – including deer. Where deer feel threatened, they graze less in enclosed areas (eg.river valleys) and more in open areas. This allows saplings to grow and native forest to regenerate in a self-sustaining way – nourishing more layers of life below.

Rewilding doesn’t use any human-defined optimal point or end state: It and is a long-term strategy that goes where nature takes it. The rewilding movement is a breath of fresh air among some pretty stale attitudes towards land management. The Rewilding Britain websiteLINK places “people, communities and livelihoods” front and centre on its list of principles, recognising that humans, like it or not, are a deeply embedded keystone species. Rewilding Britain acknowledges their role as “stewards of a healthy natural ecosystem” and is working hard to dispel the idea that they value nature over humans.

I would go further: rewilding green spaces cannot happen without rewilding humans. This requires a paradigm shift from seeing “nature” and “wild” (however we define them) as something separate from humans. Long-term rewilding requires humans not to be stewards, but active keystone species. We can achieve this only by restoring the connection between ourselves and the ecosystems in which we are embedded.

There are many ways to achieve this, but foraging surely offers the most direct, rewarding route towards restoring humans as part of nature, rather than apart from nature. Anthropocentric views of nature are dying. Rather than replacing them with stewardship roles, why not a kincentric view?

“My mother said we had many relatives and we all had to live together; so we’d better learn how to get along with each other. She said it wasn’t too hard to do – just like taking care of your younger brother or sister. You got to know them, find out what they liked and what made them cry. If you took good care of them you didn’t have to work as hard. I found out later by my older sister that mother wasn’t just talking about Indians, but the plants, animals, birds – everything on this earth. They are our relatives and we’d better know how to act around them or they’ll get after us” – Mihilakawana Pomo elder Lucy Smith, Quoted in “Taming The Wild”, M Kat Anderson

 


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Mark Williams in Islay

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