Foraging describes the harvest of non-cultivated “wild” goods, also known as non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Such goods may contain wild animals, fish and wild plants such as stinging nettles, wild garlic and wild mustard – the focus of this essay is on the latter. The practice, at least in people, is as old as the earliest ancestors of our species: foraging was the only means of obtaining resources during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods of human development, before the advent of agriculture (Svizzero, 2016). We are all the descendents of hunter-gatherers – societies across the world continue this ancient tradition today, and with growing environmental awareness in developed nations, so comes an increase in its popularity as a hobby across the Western world (de Jong & Varley, 2018).
This increase in foraging is seen by many as evidence of the establishment of a more environmentally conscientious population, dissatisfied with the growth of hypermarkets and purchasing guilt over food miles, pesticides and agricultural chemicals (Dabady & Stark, 2017). Foraging offers the opportunity to find food, commune with nature (particularly vital in urban settings), supplement nutrition and develop groups with fellow foragers to share findings, research and harvesting techniques (Dabady & Stark, 2017; Svizzero, 2016). And with all industries, it also has some economic benefit: One study into food tourism found that “foraging with a specialist” is now the 4th most requested form of food tourism, nipping at the heels of cooking classes, visiting a farm and trying street food (de Jong & Varley, 2018).
Foraging in this sense has moved away from being traditionally associated with low socio-economic class (de Jong & Varley, 2018), and is now practiced by a diverse range of people: NTFPs are found everywhere, and so it seems are the people who harvest them (McLain et al., 2014). When enthusiasts are taught how to harvest plants sparingly – following the principles of taking little, and only of what you need – it allows the sharing of resources and encourages conservation philosophy. This philosophy, in contrast to the museumification of landscapes where humans do not interact with their surroundings, encourages enthusiasm for the outdoors, and with it the reminder that we are both responsible for and connected to the nature around us (McLain et al., 2014).
“In a foraging economy social embeddedness is ubiquitous, because sharing is the main feature of such economy” – Svizzero, 2016
Shifting perspectives around our “natural” spaces cultivates behavioural change. There are between 50-80,000 edible plant species in the world, only 30 of which being used to produce 95% of our food (Four Seasons Foraging, 2019). By promoting the value of NTFPs and their habitats, policy makers would be encouraged and driven by the growing community of foragers to invest in the protection of such spaces where they grow – including woodlands, parks and other ruderal land (Dabady & Stark, 2017). This is exactly what has happened in California, where policy makers have been advised to open access to lands for foraging, using the example of the very successful Beacon Food Forest in Seattle to demonstrate the success of a community-based edible landscape (Dabady & Stark, 2017).
When foraging is undertaken on a small-scale (that is, with everyone taking minimal), sustainability is possible. This will be harder in densely populated areas, if everyone were to don their gardening gloves and root around in the shrubs. It is also made harder where common sense is not practiced, resulting in the plundering and hoarding of harvested goods, which will require careful regulation if it is to be avoided (McLain et al., 2014). But some initiatives are working to support sustainable foragers: in North America, the Institute for Sustainable Foraging offers a certification for foragers which comply with sustainable harvesting techniques for wild leeks (Sustainablyforaged.org). Although such certification is only available for one species so far, the expansion of foraging on the whole will likely bring about more of such initiatives, to ensure the protection of our shared commons.
Of course, if excessive extraction is persistent in our natural environment, it could lead to rapid depletion of shared resources or even the extinction of certain plant groups (Svizzero, 2016). But that isn’t to say that foraging should be discouraged: in fact, the combination of propagated knowledge and ample resources in otherwise derelict land encourages the exploratory nature of human beings, and with strong regulations in place could encourage a greater connection to wildlife (de Jong & Varley, 2018). The practice itself also encourages growth: through the spreading of berries and seeds and the subsequent increase in edible plants (de Jong & Varley, 2018). Perhaps this is an overly-optimistic assessment, but in my mind encouraging people to get outside, wherever they are, is always a good thing.
“At heart [foraging] is the most radically egalitarian of activities – a good awareness of things and a childlike sense of wonder being the main requirements”. – Interviewee from the study conducted by de Jong & Varley (2018)
Dabady, S., & Stark, P.B. (2017) Urban Foraging in Municipal Parks and Public Schools: Opportunities for Policymakers. [online] Available at: https://forage.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/UrbanForagingPolicyBrief-2017-08-29.pdf (Accessed: 24/04/2020)
de Jong, A. & Varley, P. (2018) Foraging tourism: Critical moments in sustainable consumption. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 26(4), pp.685-701
Four Seasons Foraging (2019) Is Foraging Sustainable? [online] Available at: https://www.fourseasonforaging.com/blog/2019/1/17/is-foraging-sustainable (Accessed: 24/04/2020)
Institute for Sustainable Foraging (n.d.) Available at: http://sustainablyforaged.org/ (Accessed: 24/04/2020)
McLain, R.J., Hurley, P.T., Emery, M.R. & Poe, M.R. (2014) Gathering “wild” food in the city: rethinking the role of foraging in urban ecosystem planning and management. Local Environment, 19(2), pp.220-240
Svizzero, S. (2016) Foraging wild resources and sustainable economic development. [pdf] Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Foraging-Wild-Resources-and-Sustainable-Economic-Svizzero/1144dac7f131eb328a355998ad25b5371af52a10 (Accessed: 24/04/2020)