With global food prices rising (see for example 1), concerns over climate change causing major disruptions in the food supply system (see for example 2), and the dubious nature of many food additives or products (see for example 3), it is no surprise that there appears to be a growing trend towards foraging for wild food. But how can we be sure that what we pick is good to eat? Indeed, doesn’t this apply to food wherever we get it — whether it is picked from the hedgerow or the supermarket shelf?
Don’t eat something….
In the Northern Hemisphere, one of the favourite times for food collection is just getting under-way: autumn, traditionally a period for celebrating the abundance of nature, with festivals to mark this joyous occasion ranging from the Iroquois Corn Dance to the Druid Alban Elfed, “a time of balance and thanksgiving” (4). For many, with the globalisation of food meaning that most foodstuffs are available year-round anyway in the supermarket, these celebrations no longer mean much. But there are still plenty of people who become excited by the slight cool in the air, and begin watching the nut-trees with interest as the days begin to shorten.
Foraging at this time can be amazingly successful, and here in England I have been able to stock up on my vitamins with apple, blackberry, elderberry and hawthorn, as well as keeping an eye out for the ripening of nutritious beechnuts, chestnuts and walnuts. Then there are the mushrooms, of which a larger variety of edible types are available at this time than at any other (5). However, I am not writing this as an instruction for readers to do the same; unless they know what they are doing.
The difference between receiving gifts and hunting
Foraging, though something which we have been engaging in as a species for thousands of years, appears to be somewhat of a lost art. Like all arts it is possible to become skilled at it, but at the same time one has to learn — or, if you like, re-learn — some basic things, many of which are not possible to read in books, as they involve utilising the ‘observe and interact’ principle by getting to know your area and the species in it, and how best you can benefit it while at the same time it is benefitting you.
You may be able to identify a wild-growing salad, fruit or fungus with absolute certainty, and you could be forgiven in this case if you happen to stumble upon a proliferation of your familiar food for picking as much as you can use. This attitude, however, can have detrimental effects if the ecosystem is not considered. If you pick all of the blackberries in a particular area, how will the birds in that area survive? Blackberries are still so common in the UK that this may not be a problem, but it is still essential to consider these factors if you are going to forage conscientiously. With mushrooms the ecosystem is much more delicate; especially as the vast majority of the mushrooms’ growth is completely invisible to the naked eye, as the mycelium snakes underground in intricate webs stretching for who knows how far.
One of the largest living organisms on the planet is not a whale or elephant but a network of fungi, which is estimated to be around 2,200 acres in diameter (6). It is perhaps prudent to remember such things as these when foraging, as it can remind you that if you treat your wild food as simply a consumable then you are missing out on a whole web of relationships, of which we are a part, even if we sometimes choose not to remember it.
One way I have found helpful to look at my own foraging activities is to see the things which nature has to offer as beautiful gifts, rather than as things to be hunted and eaten. When viewed in this way I find it more likely that I am respectful of the places I forage; if you are receiving presents from somewhere it does not make sense to mistreat that place, whereas if you are simply consuming from it perhaps you will think less.
Look at what you have
This careful thinking applies as well to learning about what you can and can’t eat. I am no foraging expert and this article is not intended as a guide to what to pick, but when I eat foraged food I ensure I first identify it with certainty. Some may call this common sense, but US-based foraging expert Sergei Boutenko, a wild food blogger (7), seems to have been getting enough reports of people not being diligent when it comes to knowing what they have harvested that he has produced a whole rap song, complete with music video (8), to explain this simple concept.
The song, entitled ‘Don’t Eat Something if You Don’t Know What It Is,’ goes briefly over the dangers of mis-identifying wild food (8). It is understandable that someone wishes to warn others about this; not least because of the many common poisonous plants and mushrooms which exist that, if not looked at carefully and treated with respect, could be mistaken for food.
The message of the rap is surely helping people to avoid accidentally cooking up a hemlock soup or throwing some datura into their salad, but it seems there is a danger that, in focussing solely on wild food which you don’t know, it may be putting new foragers off and sending them fleeing back to the supermarket. Yet by broadening the idea to include food that we buy in shops we can bring to light some of the inconsistencies in a lot of our relations to food, and perhaps help to find a better balance between what we know about our food and what we are putting into our bodies.
If you don’t know what it is?
Throughout the world, we have created over the past few decades intricate systems of transport, trade and communication, meaning that the networks of food production, sale and consumption can be seen as quite mind-boggling. With these networks we have made a wide variety of food available to a vast number of people, creating atmospheres of abundance. However, it seems that this abundance is not exactly being appreciated. Globally, it is estimated that 30 – 50% of all commercial agricultural food (1.2 – 2 billion tonnes of food) (9) is wasted before it even reaches the shops.
The amount of waste which comes from supermarkets is gradually becoming more public, in particular in the UK where there have recently been calls for supermarkets to reduce their waste (10) (11), and in France where one supermarket has made headlines by selling fruit and vegetables which are deemed ‘ugly’ instead of throwing them away (12). In Britain alone, however, just one supermarket admitted they threw away 28,500 tonnes of edible food in six months last year (13). Along with these figures we still have around one billion people in the world who are malnourished, and around the same number suffering from obesity and other diet-related illnesses (14).
Clearly, there is some kind of imbalance here, and one which it seems is at least in part due to our treatment of food as a commodity. In her book Agri-Culture, Jules Pretty argues that the industrialisation of farming has led to a fundamental disconnection between us and the food we eat (15), which is how as a society we can waste so much as simply standard, because we have lost the significance of how important this most basic and fundamental of human needs is.
This lack of connectedness also extends to our shopping habits. As Pretty says,
As consumers…the choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are. (15)
We are also sending our bodies strong messages about the kind of things we put inside them. We may look carefully at the label to check the ingredients, but who wants to check every label? For many, simply the fact that it is being sold in the supermarket is good enough to show that it is edible. But a quick glance at a few common supermarket labels here in the UK immediately throws up a variety of dubious substances.
While it is a legal requirement for companies here to tell consumers the entire content of their product, with the system of E-numbers, there are many ingredients which remain in code even though they are placed on the label. Unless you happen to know the E-number system by heart, when you buy a product which has one of these listed on it, you have absolutely no idea what could be inside it. Even when all of the ingredients are spelled out, this may not necessarily help. It is possible that the average person on the street knows what monosodium glutamate, acesulfame K, or mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids are and how they affect their bodies, but it is also highly possible that they do not. Yet we continue to buy products with these additives.
This can be seen as an even riskier act than picking wild food and eating it. When done with care and respect, foraging can be completely safe. When done with lack of care and disrespect, it seems that shopping in a supermarket can be hugely detrimental. The messages we are sending when we choose one product over another now resound across the globe, as well as within our own bodies. If we choose to buy food which is created using additives we are saying very powerfully that we wish this system to continue.
At least if you pick something in its wild, natural state, you can be pretty sure that all you are getting is that particular plant or mushroom. If you are foraging close to a road or an industrialised farm there is a chance there will be chemical residues present; but chemicals of various kinds are far more concentrated in the fruit and vegetables which are most widely available to buy for consumption (16). Masanobu Fukuoka, writing in 1975 (17), talks of how the reliance of farming is so heavy on petroleum and petroleum products that one could call them not so much farms anymore as “oil patches” (17).
This reliance still continues, along with the trends of food additives being so standard that the majority of food products may well have a myriad of extras in them that might not always be welcome on your plate (18). Just one example is the common use of sulphur to stop grape crops from going mouldy (19). Sulphur is classified as ‘safe’ by many food authorities but a quick glance at potential health risks shows that it can cause asthma, lung problems and nausea amongst other detrimental effects (20). In the EU sulphites are classified as an allergen (21) and so when they are added as an ingredient it is a legal requirement to put this on the label. When it has just been used in the farming process, however, you will hardly ever be told, or even necessarily be able to find out (18).
When I first began foraging for mushrooms, I went into the forest on an autumn day and began looking on the mulch-covered floor with keen interest. At first, I was completely disappointed; I had heard that it was mushroom season and there were lots of edible ones around, but I could not see anything!
Then, gradually, as I kept walking, something strange began happening to my eyes. I was looking in the same place, but suddenly, a wealth of previously-concealed fungi was becoming visible to me. It was simply that I was looking closer and paying more attention, but the way in which this whole world started appearing before me felt almost magical. The mushrooms which I now began noticing were not ones I recognised, and probably the vast majority were not edible, so I felt no need to take them away with me. It simply felt good to be able to spot them.
It seems that this shift in perception is useful when we are browsing not the forest floor but the shiny shelves of our local shops. Once you begin really looking at something you can consider more what the effects of taking it home with you might be. We can go into supermarkets with the same ‘gift’ attitude as we go into the forest; and if your food is really a gift, what is the best way you can think of to receive it?
Eating food is good
There are many berries, leaves, flowers and mushrooms which are not edible for humans, and a few which will kill you if you eat too many. But when you start considering all of the different processes involved in the production of a lot of the food we get in the supermarket, it can be seen that even if you are buying something which will not directly poison you, the way in which it has been created is causing such detrimental effects to the world around you that it may be better not to eat it at all. Because it is your world as well, after all; you live here too so why should you support a food system which is destroying it?
It may not always be possible to know everything about the food you buy and where it comes from, and the same is true of food you forage. Ultimately, you are the one responsible for using conscientious judgement when deciding what to eat. This can extend not only to your plate but into all of your actions. Perhaps it is not possible for you to obtain fruit which is produced without pesticides or sulphites where you live; yet if you begin vocalising your concerns over this, you can be a part of the change. As Pretty says,
Putting the culture into agri-culture and the wonder and magic back into nature [on an individual or community level] can, I believe, help in these wider transformations [on a global scale].
Changing the world really is as simple as choosing what to put on your plate. The world is full of wonderful, good food: are you choosing to eat it?
- Wenzlau, Sophie, 2013. “Global Food Prices Continue to Rise”. Worldwatch Institute: 11/4/2013. https://www.worldwatch.org/global-food-prices-continue-rise-0 – retrieved 23/09/14
- Goldenberg, Suzanne, 2014. “Climate change a threat to security, food and humankind – IPCC report”. Guardian, 31/03/14. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/31/climate-change-threat-food-security-humankind – retrieved 23/09/14
- Distant Healer, 2014. “The Haven Healing Centre Guide to Additives and E Numbers, and their Effects.” https://www.distanthealer.co.uk/enumbers.htm – retrieved 23/09/14
- About Religion, 2014. “Mabon Celebrations Around the World.” https://paganwiccan.about.com/od/mabontheautumnequinox/a/MabonAroundWorld.htm – retrieved 23/09/14
- Mabey, Richard, 2012. Food For Free. Harper Collins: London
- Barnard, J, 2000. “Oregon’s monster mushroom is world’s biggest living thing”. Independent, 06/08/00. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/oregons-monster-mushroom-is-worlds-biggest-living-thing-710278.html – retrieved 23/09/14
- Sergei Boutenko, 2014. “Wild Edibles Blog”. https://sergeiboutenko.com/ – retrieved 23/09/14
- Sergei Boutenko, 2014.”Don’t Eat Something if you Don’t Know What It Is”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIaOhjIDD-8 – retrieved 23/09/14
- Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: https://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
- Lords Select Committee, 2014. “Urgent action on food waste needed”. UK Parliament, 06/04/14. https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/eu-environment-and-agriculture-sub-committee-d/news/lords-eu-sub-d-food-waste-report – retrieved 23/09/14
- Reece, A, 2014. “Supermarkets to publish food waste data”. Resource, 29/01/14. https://resource.co/business/article/supermarkets-publish-food-waste-data – retrieved 23/09/14
- Reece, A, 2014. “French supermarket sells ugly fruit and vegetables”. Positive News, 21/08/14. https://positivenews.org.uk/2014/environment/agriculture/16073/french-supermarket-sells-ugly-fruit-vegetables/ – retrieved 23/09/14
- Sayid, R, 2014. “Seven supermarket chains including Tesco and Asda vow to reveal how much they bin each year”. Daily Mail, 30/01/14. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/supermarket-waste-seven-chains-including-3092194 – retrieved 23/09/14
- Stuart, Tristram, 2009. Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal. Penguin: London
- Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
- Mercola, 2009. “Most Vegetables and Fruits have ‘Unacceptable’ Levels of Pesticides”. https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/10/13/Fruit-and-Vegetables-Have-Unacceptable-Levels-of-Pesticides.aspx – retrieved 23/09/14
- Fukuoka, Masanobu, 1975. The Natural way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy. Bookventure
- Lawrence, Felicity, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
- Curezone, 2014. “Guide to Food Additives – E Numbers – Food Additive Codes”. https://curezone.com/foods/enumbers.asp – retrieved 23/09/14
- Holt, D, 2012. “Sulfite preservatives in food and wine can cause significant health issues”. Natural News, 14/06/12. https://www.naturalnews.com/036167_wine_sulphites_preservatives.html – retrieved 23/09/14
- Food Standards Agency, 2014. “Food Allergen Labelling”. https://www.food.gov.uk/science/allergy-intolerance/label – retrieved 23/09/14