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Our forgotten wild foods

Rekindling interest in wild and non-cultivated edible plants can have positive nutrition, health, and conservation outcomes

Blog post by Kamal Aryal and Samuel Thomas of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu

Several species of macro fungi are part of the basket of wild edibles

During the lockdown, there were several reports of people in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) being forced to forage for wild edibles to feed their families. At one level, these reports highlighted the more obvious disruptions caused by the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of timely relief and assistance. At another level, the reports were problematic in their framing, depicting foraging more as an act of desperation, and highlighting instances of accidental poisoning among others.

This is not to discount the desperation faced by people or the very real threats of accidental poisoning that come with the consumption of wild edibles. However, we need a more nuanced understanding that is not limited to the fallout of the pandemic and situate these reports in the broader context of everyday resource dependence and use, traditional knowledge, ecological restoration, and policy neglect of critical components of our food systems in general.

This is particularly important as we embark on the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and this week as we welcome a landmark global event – the UN Food Systems Summit.

A lifeline for many

Today, when we talk about “wild edibles” we most often are referring to species that grow outside cultivated areas, for example along field margins, forests, grasslands, and wetlands. However, many are also actively managed or have been domesticated, and many occur in areas that are actively managed or left fallow, like in shifting cultivation landscapes and their recovering fallows.

Globally, it is estimated that at least a billion people depend on forest food, including wild and non-cultivated edible plants (WNEPs) for their daily diet. Our work from Myanmar shows that these wild edibles provide a form of ‘green social security’ for people in the form of food, medicine, and livelihoods, and many such plants are intrinsic to local culture and traditions. Our work from the Kangchenjunga landscape – covering parts of Eastern Nepal, Bhutan and India – highlights the limited documentation of this diversity, the status of these resources, and the generational issues associated with the transfer of knowledge and skills related to their processing and use.

A basket of edible ferns

The decade on ecosystem restoration

Many of these resources are today threatened by ecosystem degradation, expansion of monoculture plantations, and the spread of invasive species. This is the first year of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), and its goal was reiterated by the theme for this year’s International Day of Forests – Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being. It is clear that we need an explicit focus on wild edibles as an important part of our overall ecosystem restoration efforts – across the matrix of protected areas, community forests, and farmscapes – in order to improve wellbeing and food and nutrition security. A coordinated effort is needed from various sectors to develop and implement in situ conservation, domestication, and other conservation and management strategies for long-term management of wild edible species.

A focus on food systems change

One of the most important challenges in the contemporary world is securing a healthy, diverse diet for an ever-growing population. This is particularly important for the HKH where more than 30 per cent of the population suffers from food insecurity and around 50 per cent face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most. WNEPs have the potential to play an important role in maintaining and improving food security in rural areas where food security remains a cause for concern, and in supplementing nutritionally poor diets low in vitamins and minerals.

However, government policies in the HKH in general focus on a narrow selection of crops — rice, wheat, and maize. This overreliance on a handful of crops, the neglect of WNEPs, and the erosion and loss of crop diversity are contributing to food insecurity, malnutrition, and health risks.

Bamboo shoots and other wild edibles for sale at a local market in India

Rekindling an interest in wild foods

There is already a growing global interest in unlocking the potential of wild foods. The Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation has been raising awareness and action around these crops. It is clear that we need global and national actions to enact food systems change through incorporation of these foods as an integral part of our food security planning.

Foraging has also declined in general, and along with it, the traditional ecological knowledge related to resources and their processing and use for food, medicine, cultural practice, and rituals. Reviving interest in wild edibles can also address this erosion and loss of traditional knowledge and generational transfer of knowledge.

This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for September is ‘Safe and nutritious food systems for all’.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.

Photo credits: 1 – Samuel Thomas/ICIMOD ; 2 – Kamal Arval; 3 – Samuel Thomas

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