Into the wild
At the recent Oxford Student Food Security conference, I presented a paper titled: Wild foraging and food security: A case study on edible wasp and hornet collection in rural Japan. In terms of its relevance to the topic of ‘Critical and alternative perspectives’ in addressing the future of food security, I intended to highlight two major issues. The first of these is the collection and consumption of wild foods, a once-ubiquitous yet now increasingly marginalised practice(1,2) that has recently received attention in the context of combating food security in developing countries(3). The second is the use of insects as human food, a consumer choice that remains a niche and novelty option in the Western world(4,5), but one that is still made regularly by an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide in the course of their daily lives, as highlighted by a recent report by the FAO(6).
So, why should we bother making the conscious choice to go into ‘the wild’, seek out these ‘weird’ foods, and then take the trouble to use them in our daily lives? After all,
Culturally prejudiced food choices are an ape’s prerogative -
Yes, that’s right - our closest relatives also choose to shun or embrace certain foods, according to their own cultural practices. In the same way that, for example, people in my country (England) choose not to exploit the abundant and nutritious kelp that can be found along our coasts, the first chimpanzee community I came to know (in Semliki, Uganda) chooses to ignore the protein-rich nuts of the oil palm(7). In Japan, where I live now, kelp is a popular food product. And in Bossou-Nimba, Guinea, where my friends and colleagues work, the chimpanzees love their palm nuts(8).
If you were to look at the lists of wild edible plants and insects worldwide, and to compare their distribution with that of the people who choose to eat them and the people who choose to ignore them, you would find thousands of similar examples(9,10,11,etc). As a species we are predisposed to hold cultural prejudices about foods that are both safe and good for us.
- But, we don't have to stick to them.
This is highly relevant to food security.
Using the information we have about the food choices made worldwide, we can expand our repertoire of locally available foods. We can use the knowledge accumulated by others to forage for the edible wild foods that our culture has historically shunned. Yes, Europeans too can enjoy the thrill of a wasp hunt, Japanese-style! As a species with the unique advantage of global knowledge exchange, we can make the conscious choice to rise above our cultural food prejudices in favour of food choices that are diverse, nutritious, and ecologically sustainable. They are also free, for those who know how and where to collect them.
Both wild foraging and edible insects are currently marketed to a wealthy minority with surplus time and money to spend, via privately-run bushcraft courses and one-off events. But what if wild edible plant and insect identification were included in standard biology lessons, and what if affordable wild foraging tutorials were offered at community colleges, and what if government-funded research projects engaged communities in rediscovering methods for sustainable wild harvesting - could these small alterations help to chip away at some of the problems with today’s food system?
In my presentation I use a case study from rural Japan to argue that the collection and consumption of wild foods has multiple benefits: Firstly, wild foods tend to be rich sources of micronutrients(12), because they grow in nutrient-diverse soils rather than single-crop fields. They also come in a diverse range of varieties, and dietary diversity has been directly linked to nutritional adequacy(13) and health status(14). But also, the benefits of wild foraging extend beyond health and nutrition. In order to collect wild foods, we must enter the ‘wilderness’ that still surrounds us, fragmented as it may be. And in doing this, we acquire knowledge of the natural environment and also the incentive to protect it.
For practical information about collecting wild plants and insects:
Pocket foraging guide to edible wild plants found in the UK, with photos (PDF): http://www.countrylovers.co.uk/wfs/wfsURBFORAGER.pdf
11 wild animal foods (insects and non-insects alike) and how to collect and prepare them (html): http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/edible-insects-zebz1305znsp.aspx?PageId=1#axzz2zHXZSV8k
Information about hunting for wasps and hornets http://www.libertyruth.com/traditional-entomophagy-in-japan.html
1. Kuhnlein and Receveur (1996) Dietary change and traditional food systems of indigenous peoples Annu Rev. Nuw. 16:417-42
2. Bharuca and Pretty (2010) The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 September 2010 vol. 365 no. 1554 2913-2926
3. Mody M et al (2006) Potential role for wild vegetables in household food security: a preliminary case study in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development 6(1)
4. Yen A L (2009) Edible insects: Traditional knowledge or western phobia? Entomological Research 39 (2009) 289–298
5. Caparros Megido et al (2014) Edible Insects Acceptance by Belgian Consumers: Promising Attitude for Entomophagy Development Journal of Sensory Studies, Volume 29, Issue 1, pages 14–20, February 2014
6. FAO (2013) Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security Forestry paper 171 Available online: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm
7. McGrew W, Marchant L, Payne C, Webster T, Hunt K (2010) Chimpanzees at Semliki Ignore Oil Palms Pan Africa News 17(2)
8. Humle T and Matsuzawa T (2004) Oil Palm Use by Adjacent Communities of Chimpanzees at Bossou and Nimba Mountains, West Africa International Journal of Primatology Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 551-581
9. Tardio et al (2005) Wild food plants traditionally used in the province of Madrid, Central Spain, Economic Botany, Volume 59, Issue 2, pp 122-136
10. Parrdo-de-Santayana et al (2007) Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal): a comparative study Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2007, 3:27
11. Ali-Shtayeh et al (2008) Traditional knowledge of wild edible plants used in Palestine (Northern West Bank): A comparative study Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2008, 4:13
12. Grivetti and Ogle (2000) Value of traditional foods in meeting macro- and micronutrient needs: the wild plant connection, Nutrition Research Reviews 13, 31-46
13. Mirmiran et al (2004) Dietary diversity score in adolescents - a good indicator of the nutritional adequacy of diets: Tehran lipid and glucose study Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2004, Vol. 13 Issue 1, p56-