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Earth First

Foraging in The Modern World: Rediscovering an Ancient Practice

Have you ever tasted the sweetness of wild strawberries freshly picked from the forest? The experience changed my life. By engaging in the age-old practice of foraging, we can savor dishes like wild garlic pesto and fresh elderflower tea. We can also gain mental clarity, a sense of community, and a deeper appreciation of the natural world.

What is foraging?

Foraging, the ancient practice of gathering wild plants, fruits, and fungi for sustenance and medicine, has been a part of human life for thousands of years. In fact, foraging was, alongside hunting, one of the primary means of food production for our ancestors, shaping their cultures and ways of life. Although it may seem outdated in today's world of supermarkets and online food delivery, foraging still persists, offering numerous social, ecological, and economic benefits for individuals and communities.

While few people today rely solely on foraging as their primary food source, it still has an important place in many indigenous communities, who practice it alongside agriculture, horticulture, and pastoralism.1 Today, picking wild berries or medicinal plants is gaining popularity throughout the world, as demonstrated by Richard Maybey’s book “Food for Free,” which identifies over 200 edible wild plants in the UK alone. And while foraging is unlikely to substitute other large-scale forms of food production, foraging still offers valuable lessons about our relationship with the wild environment and the importance of sustainable food systems. By supporting and learning from local foragers, we can reconnect with nature, restore ecological health, and build stronger communities.

Reconnecting with food systems

In our urbanised world, it is very easy to lose touch with where our food comes from and how it is produced. We have become passive consumers, disconnected from the natural environment and the processes that sustain us. Our society-wide indifference to plants, a keystone of every ecosystem, has even received a diagnosis: “plant blindness” or “plant awareness disparity (PAD).2,3

 Sainbury’s, Coventry UK, 1967. Whilst foraging has not played a significant role in European diets for millennia, modern developments such as the supermarket has expanded the gap between consumer and producer significantly in the last 100 years. (Coventry
Sainbury’s, Coventry UK, 1967. Whilst foraging has not played a significant role in European diets for millennia, modern developments such as the supermarket has expanded the gap between consumer and producer significantly in the last 100 years. (Coventry Telegraph Archive/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

So, what are the results of this disconnection between people and their food systems? From a food production standpoint, many of us willingly continue to support intensive industrial farming with little regard for the issues that come with it, such as deforestation, soil degradation, and water pollution affecting ecosystems worldwide.4 Our eating habits have also been impacted, with diets high in sodium and sugars but lacking fruit and wholegrains being linked to 11 million deaths in 2017 alone and contributing to the rise of chronic diseases that place a significant burden on healthcare systems throughout the world.5 Furthermore, many people today spend little time outdoors in nature, which can lead to a lack of appreciation for the natural world and potentially impact our mental health, a condition known as “nature deficit disorder”, first coined by Richard Louv in 2005.6

This is where foraging comes in. It is more than just gathering food; it's a way to establish a deeper connection with the natural world and become an active participant in the food system. When you forage, you're not just passively consuming food, you're actively engaging with it in a way that fosters a deep connection with the living world. Foraging empowers you to create a ‘metabolic bond’ between yourself and the living world. You can become more attuned to the natural cycles around you and start noticing how they relate to your body's needs. This heightened awareness becomes second nature, and you become more in tune with your environment. You might find yourself noticing the subtle changes you’d normally miss, like wild garlic beginning to germinate, and feel your own hunger stirring in response.

Foraging also offers a chance to break free from the industrialised food system and discover the beauty and diversity of the plants around us. It’s a way to realise that this world nurtures us, not metaphorically, but literally. This, I believe, is the main advantage of foraging: it can cause a fundamental shift in your mindset and allow you to imagine a different world.

Wild garlic has become one of the most popular plants to forage, partly because it can be found in the wooded areas in or close to urban areas. Here wild garlic blooms in the town of Brühl, Germany. (Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert via Getty Images)
Wild garlic has become one of the most popular plants to forage, partly because it can be found in the wooded areas in or close to urban areas. Here wild garlic blooms in the town of Brühl, Germany. (Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert via Getty Images)

Health benefits

On top of this philosophical aspect, foraging has some very practical benefits. It provides an opportunity to reap all the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature. The physical activity involved in searching for wild edibles in nature provides a low-impact way to move your body while enjoying the great outdoors. And the mental benefits of spending time in nature are numerous and well-documented. Spending time in green spaces helps reduce stress, can help people cope with anxiety, and can provide relief from depression, as well as improve overall mood and well-being.7,8

The sense of accomplishment that comes with foraging adds an additional layer of satisfaction to the experience. Personally, successfully identifying and collecting wild edibles has had an incredible effect on my self-esteem. Many foragers describe the activity as therapeutic, giving us a way to escape the stress of daily life and connect with nature. It allows us to disconnect from the fast-paced, technology-driven world and reconnect with something more primal and meaningful.

Honouring and perpetuating traditions

As foraging has been used as a source of food and medicine by communities for centuries, and many continue to rely on it today, traditional foragers have developed a significant body of knowledge. In many indigenous and rural communities, foraging is still an integral part of cultural traditions and is often tied to spiritual practices. Many of these communities have a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural environment and the plants within it, which can be used for both sustenance and ceremonial purposes.9

Today, the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge has become widely recognised. But according to Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in an interview with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “today, close to 2700 languages are estimated to be in danger of disappearing forever, if we lose them, we also risk losing invaluable knowledge that could have provided answers to some of the world’s greatest problems”.10 Indigenous communities and their traditional practices are often threatened by trends in Western culture, for example, the growing mainstream demand for sacred sage, which can lead to over-harvesting.11 Practicing solidarity with indigenous foragers and respectfully learning about their practices can help preserve vital ecological knowledge, keep ancient traditions alive, and promote cultural diversity while also addressing the potential impacts of cultural appropriation.

A Moken woman forages for food at low tide in Ko Surin, Thailand. The Moken are a seafaring people who for centuries lived nomadically on the Andaman Sea. Due to stricter border control, commercial overfishing, rapid development, and tourism, the Moken hav
A Moken woman forages for food at low tide in Ko Surin, Thailand. The Moken are a seafaring people who for centuries lived nomadically on the Andaman Sea. Due to stricter border control, commercial overfishing, rapid development, and tourism, the Moken have gradually been forced to adopt a settled lifestyle. (Taylor Weidman via Getty Images)

Ecological and socioeconomic benefits

By this point, you might have justified questions about the sustainability of foraging and its possible negative effects on biodiversity. However, it is not always a destructive practice that harms nature. On the contrary, it has the power to promote and safeguard local species while fighting against the damaging impact of invasive species.

In metropolitan areas like New York City, foraging for invasive plants like Japanese honeysuckle and garlic mustard can generate socioeconomic and cultural value for communities while also preventing their spread. By working together with environmental managers, foragers can target threats to local ecosystems while also benefiting from the resources they provide.12

Responsible foraging practices can also support the growth and conservation of native flora. In Norway, the Norwegian Association for Mycology and Foraging, the Natural History Museum of Oslo, and LISST-Dynamiques Rurales Laboratory in France have collaborated on a transdisciplinary research project that combines local and academic knowledge to assess sustainability.13 According to their study, foragers consider the conservation status and local abundance of native plants and pay attention to individual plant survival after foraging to enrich forager-biodiversity relationships over time.

So, when does traditional foraging become unsustainable? Unsurprisingly, the main causes of unsustainable foraging are linked to market pressure, customs and norms promoted by states, climate change, and the marginalisation of certain groups.14 However, by facilitating education and investment, initiatives focused on gastronomy and eco-tourism have the potential to simultaneously boost local income, preserve biodiversity, promote cultural healing, and facilitate adaptations to climate change.

Building communities

Last but not least, foraging is not just about collecting food, but also about building relationships and connections with others. All plants are different, and foraging carries an intrinsic risk. Deadly look-alikes are as dangerous now as they were millennia ago, and even seasoned foragers can make a mistake. While this risk is very real, and safety should never be overlooked when it comes to foraging, the risk can also make communities built around foraging even stronger. By openly sharing knowledge, information and tips on how to do it safely, being involved in a foraging community can build a real sense of camaraderie and belonging. These networks, due to their closeness to nature and their need to care for their members, can also facilitate social and ecological change.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, foraging networks played an important role in starting and promoting solidarity initiatives and mutual aid groups, facilitating urban adaptation despite their relatively low membership.15 For many people, it directly provided a way to supplement lost income and improve their mental health by escaping the confines of their house during lockdown.

Mushroom identification is a tricky business, with many edible species having deadly lookalikes. (Jill Brady via Getty Images)
Mushroom identification is a tricky business, with many edible species having deadly lookalikes. (Jill Brady via Getty Images)

A future in foraging

In an age of biodiversity loss and climate change, it can be hard not to see ourselves as parasites, as inherently destructive creatures. The relationship with the living world created by foraging subverts this misanthropic view. It creates hope for a future in which taking and giving from the living world are not separate and opposite actions, but part of a nourishing cycle. Foraging shifts our position, from passive consumers complicit in environmental destruction to active producers that fight invasive species and propagate native flora.

Foraging is, by no means, the “one true solution” to the problems surrounding modern food systems. We cannot hope to feed even a fraction of our existing population with sustainable foraging. However, that is not why I chose to speak about it. It is a free activity in a world where everything has a price. It has wide-ranging health benefits. It can build communities and support inclusivity and consideration of all cultures. It can make you try flavours you would never have otherwise.

But most importantly, by making us a part of the food system, it fuels imagination, grants a new perspective on the living world and reminds us that we are inherently part of it, despite the illusionary barriers we try to build between the “human” and the “natural” worlds. And while the practice itself will not fix all the issues of our broken systems, the ideas it teaches us will play a key role in this historic endeavour.

So, what are you waiting for? Check a foraging calendar adapted to your area, ensure there are no dangerous lookalikes, consult a local herbalist or foraging groups if you know any, and get out foraging. My favorite wild food recipe is wild garlic pesto, what will yours be?

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