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Myth #3: Foraging hurts the woods

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.

As foraging surges in popularity, everyone’s worried about the woods. I posed this concern to Steve Brill, one of America’s most well-known foragers, and he said that this is like saying that we shouldn’t promote bicycle riding because if everyone started riding bicycles at the same time, the streets would be impassable. We can only wish we had that problem.

I once saw a cartoon showing a string of SUVs lined up at the gate to a national park. The guy in the front of the line says to the guard, “we’re here to help save the forest.”

Jesus said to take the beam out of your own eye before you point out the speck of dust in someone else’s. Saying that foraging hurts the woods is like worrying about cutting yourself with a knife while shooting yourself in the head. Foraging doesn’t hurt the woods; what hurts the woods is not foraging. Even if everyone suddenly started foraging, even with no concern for the environment, we would still do less damage than we are already doing now.

The word agriculture means “growing in a field.” Where do you think all those fields come from? To raise crops, we raze forests. You can wax poetic about amber waves of grain, but Brazilians are not just about hair removal.

Nor is the rainforest the only forest we’ve been decimating. By the Middle Ages, half the woods in Western Europe were already gone. Many argue that agriculture, i.e., clearing land to grow food, has been the most destructive thing we have ever done, not only to our human bodies but to our greater body, The Earth.

Grainforest Crunch

The takeover method of enlarging carrying capacity was far older than the Age of Exploration and the centuries of colonial expansion… From about 10,000 years ago, our earliest horticulturalist ancestors began taking over land upon which to grow crops for human consumption. That land would otherwise have supported trees, shrubs, or wild grasses, and all the animals dependent thereon – but fewer humans.

William Catton Jr., “The Tragic Story of Human Success

Five thousand years ago, we had 1.8 billion more hectares of forest. That’s 14% of the earth’s landmass. Today, half the world’s rainforests are gone. Why? Eighty percent of global deforestation is thanks to agriculture. Forty percent of the land on earth, including mountains and deserts, is now devoted to it.

Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the world’s freshwater and is responsible for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. In an ironic turn of events, evidence suggests that the Spanish conquest— that is, the wave of infectious disease that wiped out 90% of the population in North America — initiated a period of reforestation that triggered a “mini-ice age.” In other words, Christopher Columbus may have been our first climate change “hero.” Will history have to repeat itself?

To be clear, the problem isn’t just factory farms or even commercial agriculture. The majority of worldwide agricultural land use is for subsistence farming. And the #1 thing we grow is grain.

Grain agriculture actually destroys the land it touches. The Fertile Crescent, ground zero for grain development, used to be, well, fertile. It was verdant, lush, and teeming with life – including nomadic hunter gatherers. Paradise, you might even say. Animals grazed on perennial grasses, pooped out nutrients, and gradually those nutrients would work themselves back into the soil. It was a beautiful, natural life cycle that worked great for millennia.

But once grains were grown and the land was irrigated, everything changed. Perennial renewable grasses became annual grains. Animals no longer grazed and replenished the soil. The top soil was robbed of nutrients and faded away. Irrigation meant crucial annual floods were disrupted or even halted. A massive monkey wrench was thrown into the system, and rather than coexisting as a complementary aspect of nature, man thus commenced the conflict with the natural world that rages to this very day.

Mark Sisson, review, The Vegetarian Myth

Sad but true. We are on the cusp of a massive famine, and that’s nothing new.

According to early white explorers, the top soil on the Great Plains was twelve feet deep. Interestingly, by the 1930s, before chemical agriculture, before GMOs, before Monsanto, barely a hundred years of growing grains—and growing them organically—turned those twelve feet into a mere twelve inches, which in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s blew away to the Gulf of Mexico. That is what happened because of organic agriculture.

Tom Cowan, MD, “A Holistic Approach to Cancer

The animal and plant species extinctions are estimated between 20 to 40 percent. The human community is impoverished, the rivers are poisoned and the food is not worth eating… Some would say this unspeakable tragedy is a result of commercial (chemical) agriculture and that what we need is a return to organics. They are wrong.

Tom Cowan, MD, review, The Vegetarian Myth

The sins of the father go back further than the 50’s. Try adding a couple zeroes. We’ve been plowing through our inheritance since history began.

Shopping Spree

Shall this garden of beauty be suffered to lie dormant in its wild and useless luxuriance? … myriads of enterprising Americans would flock to its rich and inviting prairies; the hum of Anglo-American industry would be heard in its valleys; cities would rise upon its plains and sea-coast, and the resources and wealth of the nation be increased in an incalculable degree.

Illinois State Register, 1846

The word forage means “to pillage.” The real question is not whether to allow foraging but whether to allow it to continue. From prairie to farm to shopping mall, we have been systematically pillaging the earth for five thousand years, claiming it’s only right and proper — a.k.a., our property right — to do so.

All wealth ultimately comes from the earth. Capital means property, and “real estate” means land. As our system of private land ownership falls apart, people are taking back the land, one way or another. We are being forced to get back to nature and taking back nature by force.

Of course, that’s not the kind of foraging I advocate. I’m not talking about robin’ the ‘hood. The system might be inequitable, the police might be corrupt, but that doesn’t justify looting either.

Wild Apples to Apples

It’s certainly a travesty when the last remaining woods near a city are completely overrun, like London’s Epping Forest. In areas of high human traffic, foraging should certainly be restricted. But that doesn’t justify blanket headlines like, “Wild mushroom foraging is damaging forests, warn nature groups.” They’re talking about the equivalent of the American park system, not our national forest. Besides, they are talking about England. Let’s take a closer look.

England is about the size Alabama. At over 1,000 people per square mile, it has the sixth highest population density in the world, over 1100% higher than the United States. The areas in question are right outside London, the largest municipality in Western Europe.

London has over 8 million people. Epping forest, with 6,000 acres, is the largest natural area in London, just seventeen miles from downtown. The Metropolitan Green Belt surrounding London is 1,300 acres. Add in other parks and you still have less than 10,000 acres of undeveloped land in London.

On the other hand, consider Asheville, North Carolina, where I live. Asheville has a population of about 80,000. The Pisgah National Forest surrounding Asheville is half a million acres. That’s fifty times more woods for 1/100th as many people.

Of course, not every city in the U.S. is so blessed, and we need to protect our endangered habitats accordingly. But not from foraging. If you want to try to protect the environment, try limiting development, specifically, the biggest development in the past five millennia. Why isn’t there an article that says, “Farming is damaging forests, warn nature groups?”

Treating the Symptom

There’s a Zen story of a property owner with a beautiful garden. The servant comes in and says, “master, a boy has come through with a stick and chopped down all the flowers!” The master sighs and says, “at least he noticed them.”

We notice the impact of small groups and individuals, yet we’re blind to the ongoing, systematic demolition of entire ecosystems. Worrying about foragers ransacking the woods, then, even for endangered plants, is “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.” It’s throwing a dollar after a dime. It’s the equivalent of worrying about welfare moms and not about corporate subsidies, or the dangers of herbal medicine or recreational drug use rather than pharmaceuticals, or infection and not about antibiotics, or terrorists rather than our militarized international relations…

These are not just analogies; they are all symptoms of one underlying illness. If you’re going to think locally, you need to act globally. We have a systemic issue here that is showing up in countless ways, and worrying about one manifestation of it is like worrying about chemotherapy making your hair fall out. That should be the least of your worries.

Rather than fight the symptom, let’s look at the cause. Instead of pouring millions of dollars into trying to cure cancer, let’s look at how to prevent it. Fortunately, the solution is simple. I mean, uncomplicated. It probably won’t be easy, but at least it’s obvious. The cancer of our culture is simply a hard habit to break.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Life is too short to hurry! To sum up, the cultivated food we eat, whether organic or conventional, large scale or small, is far more damaging to the environment than wild food would ever be. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

Myth #4: Foraging is no longer an option

Agriculture did not become a reliable source of food until fossil fuels gave us the massive energy subsidies needed to avoid shortfalls… We now use an average of 4 to 10 calories for each calorie of food energy…

Agriculture… consumes more calories of work and resources than can be produced in food, and so is on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. That’s a good definition of unsustainability…

When farming can no longer be subsidized by petrochemicals, famine will once again be a regular visitor.

Toby Hemenway, “Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

It’s true: foraging is no longer an option. But the same is true for agriculture. As we’ve seen, when you take without giving, it doesn’t matter which path you choose. Either one will only take you so far.

Conventional wisdom had it that in an age of mechanization, the cost of producing the food that we eat would decrease as technology found new ways of improving yields and minimizing labor costs. But there was a problem that hadn’t been factored in. Production methods are now such that 95% of all the food we eat in the world today is oil-dependent. The ‘black gold’ is embedded in our complex global food systems, in its fertilizers, the mechanization necessary for its production, its transportation and its packaging…

The age of cheap food is at an end… A new era of austerity is approaching, and we are ill prepared for its scale and effect… how will a nation that has grown accustomed to having what it wants, when it wants, cope?… The net result is a looming crisis of which soaring oil prices could simply be the starting gun.

Rosie Boycott, “Nine Meals from Anarchy

Our current population wouldn’t be here without fossil fuels. “This fact,” says William Catton Jr., “puts mankind out on a limb which the activities of modern life are busily sawing off.”

Only about one percent of the world’s industrial energy goes into making fertilizer. But aside from everything else involved in global food systems, even if oil supplies were infinite, there are environmental costs as well, severe ones we can no longer ignore.

What’s the alternative? Our only option is to return to what has worked since before history. Today, it’s called permaculture. As we shall see, permaculture is to agriculture what solar energy is to fossil fuel. On which would you bet your bottom dollar?

The Last Resort

It seems that many farms start by assuming, in a somewhat rote way, what a crop is. Corn, soybeans, tomatoes, etc. are selected and the land is tamed to suit the crop. Because these plants would not naturally grow on that site, they need to be supported with inputs such as fertilizer, water and shelter. Instead, why not look at what edible plant life would naturally and even exuberantly grow on that landscape and figure out how to make nature’s bounty delicious (with the help of creative chefs and taste enthusiasts)?

Wild plants such as sumac love “poor” soils and do not require any irrigation, fertilizers, chemical pesticides, tilling, regarding, mulching, black plastic, or hoop houses. This is what I envision when I think of sustainable agriculture. It’s a very simple concept, and it only takes a minute to see the common sense in this.

Tama Wong, “A Wild Farm

Farming, organic or otherwise, is not sustainable when you try to replace one ecosystem with another. Yet that’s precisely what we have tried to do. For five thousand years, we have been trying to grow field crops in areas that would naturally be forested. We’ve been working against nature instead of with it.

Farming is a struggle when you try to grow what doesn’t actually belong in a place, what doesn’t fit in. Farming is easy when you grow what doesn’t need help from us to survive. The same is true for hunting. It’s why wild meat is called game, as in not work but play.

In 99% of the world, field crops are not natural: they don’t grow wild there on their own. That’s why mankind’s most massive effort has been failing since it started.

True Local

To add insult to injury, we now call any food that’s grown and eaten nearby “local.” You can put a golf course in the rainforest and call it “local.” That doesn’t mean it belongs there.

Most of what we call “local food” isn’t really that, not because it comes from someplace else but because it doesn’t thrive here on its own. If it did, then we wouldn’t have to apply fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. It would not be overtaken by weeds.

The lesson, one we’ve still mostly failed to learn, is elementary: the only truly local and sustainable food is food that grows somewhere naturally, i.e., without help. That means wild food. “Wild” simply means natural. Food that grows in nature is the only natural, local, sustainable food.

The Graze of God

Granted, there are regenerative agricultural practices that are far more sustainable. If you don’t till the soil, don’t leave the land bare, plant a diversity of crops, and graze it with a variety of livestock, you are somewhat closer to what would be natural.

But these approximations fall vastly short of the real thing. You can’t graze a million bison across fenced, private holdings, and you can’t just grow whatever you want in a seemingly natural way. What if what would naturally cover the land you are farming is trees?

Whatever doesn’t grow in a place naturally is, like fences, unnatural and therefore unsustainable. Period. This is why we need to return to two pillars of hunter-gatherer culture: shared property ownership and permaculture. “We don’t own the land,” as aboriginal people still know, “the land owns us.”

Alter-native Education

Foraging native plants is not just irresponsible: it is tantamount to ecocide and comparable to eating shark fin soup or hunting elephants, whales and condors…

After erasing native habitat in the places we live, we go into our remnant wild lands and forage native plants. This is not just ironic, it’s heart-breaking…

In our agricultural areas, we should convert some of the non-native monocultures to various native species that yield the desired seasonal ingredients and support healthy, functioning food webs and ecosystems… Chefs and others desiring native ingredients would be supporting the creation of some of the greenest jobs imaginable…

Let’s honor and enjoy the nature of place through cuisine that not only celebrates our terroir but also celebrates the human ability to change and create a better world.

Lisa Novick, “Forage in the Garden, Not in What’s Left of the Wild

Well-trained foragers avoid harvesting rare plants. The most important part of this training occurs before age two. It involves being conceived, born, and raised in a culture that respects and supports all beings equally. That’s a tall order, but we’re in deep shift.

One of the things we have to learn is that, like “local,” “native” is not always better. Like any good citizen, local food doesn’t have to be native; it just has to be naturalized. What does it mean for a species to be “native,” anyway? The definition is quite arbitrary. I have lived and foraged around Asheville for twenty years. I am not native here, but I thrive here. As far as I can tell, I fit right in.

Crash and Churn

It’s no coincidence that farmers are also conquerors. A growing population needs more land. Depleted farmland forces a population to take over virgin soil.

Toby Hemenway, “Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

P.B. Shelley, “Ozymandias

Is Homo sapiens an Ozymoron? One definition of intelligence is the ability to stop doing something that doesn’t work. Unfortunately, when it comes to agriculture, you can go through a lot of land before you learn your lesson: once you ruin yours, you just take over and spoil someone else’s.

“Show me your garden,” says the poet laureate Alfred Austin,“and I will tell you what you are like.” Agriculture is an aggro culture. But we haven’t always been this belligerent. By growing what would otherwise be wild, or rather, by wisely managing their environment, Native Americans successfully practiced permaculture for thousands of years.

Who’s Invasive?

What happens when a country is laid waste by agriculture? The land is overrun by weeds; its people by disease.

Monotheistic monoculture doesn’t like competition. When our aggression has consequences, we turn our hammer on that nail. We fight nature with herbicides, we fight cancer with drugs, we fight drugs with jails.

It’s no coincidence that Nazi Germany had a pioneering native plants program, nor that today, the war on invasive species is largely backed by petrochemical companies.

And what happens when you kick out the invasives and plant more natives? The same thing just happens again. Weeds are the effect, not the cause. They come in to fix the mess that we’ve made.

Growing wild food

The dichotomization of wild vs. cultivated food species should be cautioned against; many (if not most) wild species actually fall along a continuum, from wild species under various degrees and types of human management and intervention through to domestication.

Powell et al, “Improving diets with wild and cultivated biodiversity from across the landscape

Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens.

Charles Mann, 1491

Can we possibly feed everyone at this point, locally or otherwise sustainably? It’s up to us. The Mayans developed a sustainable food system, still possible today, capable of feeding populations densities comparable to our own. Like eco-designer William McDonough points out, there are four times more ants on the planet (by body mass) than humans, and they don’t have a population problem. And they all have jobs.

What the earth has been able to accomplish in the past five or so billion years, including the last .0001% of it, has come far more through cooperation than competition. The real “tragedy of the commons” has been the loss of it — or rather, the loss of a culture of sharing. But that culture is returning, most notably in Wikinomic systems like open-source software and other forms of internet collaboration. Now can we once again share land, or at least food? Can we put our mouth where our money is?

Consider my parents’ birthplace, Havana. It has over two million inhabitants, yet over 70% of their fresh vegetables are grown within the city, all organically. If you can do this with traditional produce, imagine what you can do with “weeds.”

The same is true for meat. Take deer, for example. The reason deer have invaded suburbia is that we’ve inadvertently created their ideal habitat. Along with the fact that they no longer have natural predators, deer, like humans, have overrun their environment. Fortunately, you can eat at least one of them for dinner.

What most people don’t realize is that suburbia is basically the same open understory that Native Americans studiously maintained for untold generations. Their deer weren’t domesticated, but their well-managed landscape wasn’t completely “natural” either. Or was it?

In Real Life program, 2013Do humans have a natural place in stewarding the environment? It’s a moot question; we’re already doing it. The important thing is that wild food does not have to be uncultivated. What makes it wild — or rather natural — is less a matter of whether it’s grown than whether it’s bred. As I’ve explained, we can’t live on what’s bred alone.

To sum up, some wild food is unplanted, or as some would say, “God planted it.” Other wild food is actually feral: once planted by humans, it is now untended, like this old apple tree. Wild food can also be “planted by God” yet tended by humans. All three, when unhybridized and growing where they thrive, can be considered “wild.”

When I forage, I harvest anything in abundance, whether “planted” or “unplanted,” “native” or “exotic” — including so-called “invasives.” If you can’t beat it, eat it!

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