We were designed to eat wild foods. Human survival involved foraging for plants, collecting nuts and seeds, and tracking and killing animals over the most of our history.
Hunting and gathering has been our most successful lifestyle to date by any metric. The anthropologists Richard Lee and Irven DeVore estimated in the late 1960s that 90 percent of the 85,000 million people who had ever lived were hunters and gatherers, with only about 6% being farmers.
The small number of people that remained were attempting to adapt to life in the industrialized world. Our development as hunters and gatherers has impacted our physiology, psyche, anxieties, desires, and nutritional choices. Our bodies haven’t changed that much but our way of life and our diets have, profoundly and at speed.
Only a few thousand people out of the 7.8 billion people on the earth today still get the majority of their nutrition from the wild. Colonialism has played a role in this decline in the past, and other pressures are at work now. Many traditional communities’ environments are being destroyed by the farms, plantations, and businesses that feed the majority of us
In a sort of neocolonialism through food, manufactured and branded items from the industrialized world make their way into the furthest regions of the Amazon forest and the African savannah. The world would lose significant information accumulated over many generations, as well as a link to the way of life that shaped us, if the last of the hunter-gatherers vanished – which may happen within our lifetimes.
When you look closer, though, you’ll notice that “wild” food isn’t just for the last few hunter-gatherers. Wild food is still used extensively by indigenous agricultural cultures all over the world. In addition to the cassava and plantains they grow, the Mbuti people of the Congo eat around 300 other types of animals and plants.
In rural India, 1,400 wild plant species, including 660 distinct fruits, are consumed. While many Indigenous people acquire the majority of their calories from wheat, corn, rice, and millet, wild food still provides the majority of their micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
For example, rice farmers in north-eastern Thailand graze for wild spinach along the borders of their fields, a vegetable that compliments the starchy grain they raise. The distinction between cultivated and uncultivated is more of a sliding scale than a binary option.
It’s always been like this. The earliest farmers who planted seeds, as well as hundreds of generations of farmers after them, would have died of hunger if they hadn’t continued to hunt and scavenge for wild food. In more recent times, all human cultures experiencing shortage have turned to the wild for food.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Sicilians who went hungry after poor harvests searched for snails to eat; Americans in the depression era turned to wild blackberries and dandelions; people in wartime Britain gathered nettles; and in China during the Great Famine of the 1950s, people looked to bitter grasses for survival.
Today, 1 billion people get at least some of their food from the wild, whether for food or enjoyment (the figure is 3.3 billion if you include fish). City inhabitants in Oaxaca, Mexico’s southernmost state, line at marketplaces to fulfill their desires for roasted flying ants. Affluent foodies in Maputo, Mozambique, pay top premium for slices of wild “bush” meat. Urban foragers venture into forests on the edges of Moscow, New York, Tokyo, and London to hunt berries and mushrooms when they are in season.
But even though the call of the wild remains strong, the practice and the knowledge of how to find and eat wild foods are disappearing. So too, of course, are the wild plants, animals and their habitats.
By the time you get to the next full stop, the world will have lost the equivalent of a football pitch of primary forest. Deforestation to make way for monocultures of soy, palm oil and cattle has contributed to thousands of the world’s wild food species becoming endangered or threatened with extinction.
Indigenous peoples, who make up less than 5% of the overall human population yet occupy 25% of the world’s geographical surface, are one source of optimism. They are among the most important custodians of the natural environment and protectors of biodiversity in the twenty-first century. The wild foods they safeguard are critical for our future food security, particularly the “crop wild cousins” who may contain the genetic keys to issues like drought and disease resistance.
We might not be able to imitate the hunter-gatherers that remain, but we can and should be inspired by the people who continue to venture into the wild.
Wild foods are also becoming endangered at a time when we are struggling to understand what our diets should look like. We look to incomplete science for answers but ignore lessons already learned.
Although wild foods provide less than 1 percent of all of the calories consumed around the world today, they account for a much higher proportion of nutrients. Among hunter-gatherers such as the Hadza, rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer are so low that cases are hard to find.
This is partly because of the rich diversity of foods they eat and the high levels of fiber they consume (five times more than people in the industrialized world). Bitterness and sourness, both associated with wild foods, are often signals of health-giving properties. In the Peruvian Amazon, people gather camu camu (Myrciaria dubia), a fruit which resembles a cherry and contains 20 times more vitamin C than an orange.
The foods we’ll meet in this section all contribute to understanding why wild foods are important. Of course, the solutions to the environmental and physical problems we face will not entail a return to the wild, but they will be informed by the wisdom that has brought our species thus far over millennia. While we may not be able to mimic the remaining hunter-gatherers, we can and should be inspired by those who continue to trek into the wilderness.
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