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.