The rise of foraging and the dangers of foraging

Foraging is yet another classic example of Columbusing or appropriation — people have been searching the natural world for food for millennia, it’s not new, as society have changed fewer numbers of people have had to turn to nature for food but the practice has never truly gone away, and now suddenly it’s a huge thing with hipsters. That goes double with ‘urban foraging,’ as many hipsters are in urban habitats and thus want to meander through public parks and the like to ferret out edible plants. Which, hooray, nature is awesome and many delicious things grow in it, so let’s harvest them (ethically) and enjoy them.

But…I have some concerns about the rise of foraging as a social trend, and it’s important to talk about them. And for once, this isn’t a rant about appropriation and my frustration with how the time-tested skills of an entire class and generation of people aren’t being respected. At least, not directly. Not really.

I’ve spent my entire life in and out of the woods as well as urban parks and, uhm, not-public urban territory finding things to eat and eating them. In urban areas in particular, there’s a ton of fruit just hanging out — literally — especially if you go up into the luxe neighbourhoods in the Berkeley hills, where people leave fruit on the free to rot rather than harvesting it, which makes it fair game in my book. You can find all sorts of things in urban areas, from veggies gone feral to edible landscaping to gardens people are invited to harvest from — ’round the corner from some friends, there’s a plot that says ‘please pick $whateverisinseason.’ It’s possible to eat pretty well off the landscape in wealthy neighbourhoods — less so in poor ones, where landscaping is more limited and there aren’t as many warm, fuzzy gardens.

In nature, there are all sorts of mushrooms and edible plants and fish and animals and all manner of things. There are berries and bark and tasty shrubs. Some are indigenous plants, others are introduced, some are things gone feral — last summer I was walking along an isolated trail and unexpectedly encountered a grove of cherry trees. When I examined more closely, lips dripping with juice, I discovered that there used to be a homestead, though all that remained was the footprint of a house, some scattered stones. I’ve found plum trees grown from discarded pits, apples twisted and gnarled from years in the wild. If you want to find food, it practically jumps into your hand.

But there are also a lot of not-food things, or food that is technically edible, but not such a good idea to eat. Take fennel, which is quite tasty. Fennel is also very adept at uptaking things from the soil, and thrives on trashy soil because it can get nutrients out of basically anything. That trait is why it’s used in phytoremediation, because it sucks industrial chemicals and heavy metals right out of the — whoops, were you eating? If you don’t know what’s been on a site, urban fennel is not a good thing to eat.

The same thing goes for brassicas, which are a lot like fennel with respect to their ability to yank all kinds of unpleasant things from the soil. (It’s the story behind that scaremongering ‘kale is bad for you!’ story that floated around last year.) All brassicas, including wild mustards and the like, are super-adept at making do with what they’ve got. So…maybe think twice about nomming on some chard growing from a crack in the sidewalk, yeah?

These are just two examples of things that are perfectly edible and safe to eat under normal conditions that might be poor choices when harvested in some environments. There are lots more, but I don’t feel the need to belabour the point. Plants can contain unexpected toxins and sometimes that’s true in ‘untouched’ wilderness as well, as for example when plants uptake lead from discarded or lost cases of lead bullets. Which isn’t to say that you should never eat anything growing in the ground ever, but some judicious caution is advised, and it can take skill, experience, and judgement to figure out what’s safe to eat.

Speaking of what’s safe to eat, there’s another category of things that doesn’t get its due in discussions about foraging: Things that actually aren’t safe to eat. These things fall into two rough groups. There are some things that are edible, but don’t really taste very good, or are just bland, like a lot of mushrooms. They won’t make you sick, there’s nothing wrong with eating them, they have some caloric value and nutrients, they just don’t have…anything to them. Sure, go ahead and harvest them, but don’t expect things to be rewarding.

Others can make you mildly ill — false chanterelles, for example, don’t taste like their prized counterparts and can also cause some stomach upset. And, of course, there are things that can make you seriously sick. Usually it’s easy to identify things that will make you wish you hadn’t eaten them, but not always, and if you aren’t experienced, are foraging in a new place, and don’t know exactly what you’re doing, the results can be costly. Some people are willing to run that risk so they can say they’ve been out and about foraging, but perhaps they should reconsider their life choices.

I don’t mean to dissuade people from foraging or to suggest that it’s a shark-lined path of peril. But it can come with risks, and I fear that as it becomes trendy among unskilled people who don’t respect generations gone before, we may see more cases of people getting ill or developing long-term health problems as a result of exposure to unpleasant things. And that, my friends, is not good.

Image: Foraging in the Forest, Olly F, Flickr