Overstory #145 - Wild Foods and Food Security
Editor's note: Due to the extremely large number of references cited in this article (well over 200), the reader is referred to the original source for cited literature. The citation numbers in this excerpt text correspond to the numbers in the bibliography of the original source. See below under Original Source for the citation and information about where to purchase the book.
Food insecurity develops though several stages. These begin with 'coping,' which involves selling surplus animals and non-essential possessions, borrowing from close kin, collecting wild foods, etc. This stage can progress to 'asset disposal,' involving sale of animals, outmigration, pledging or sale of farmland, and so on. The last stage is 'non-coping' or starvation (or charity dependency) (380; 389; 422; 451). Wild foods may be important at all stages.
Contribution to food security
The use of wild foods as a component of local response to increasing food insecurity is widely documented (374; 375; 383; 400a; 413; 414; 416; 417; 440; 441). 'Famine foods' include wild vegetables, berries, nuts, fruits, insects, etc. In periods of limited food stress, such foods may be eaten only occasionally and more often by children and poorer sectors of society. However, in periods of heightened food insecurity such foods may become widely consumed (386b; 387; 390; 418). For instance, in Java outputs from home gardens increase in times of rice shortage (151a, b).
Wild foods are not only important to food security in extreme cases; they often make up a portion of the diet in other times too (395; 396; 416). For instance, in Mali poorer households may combine the use of porridge derived from Boscia senegalensis fruit with their limited supplies of stored millet (421; 448). In northern Nigeria leafy vegetables and other bush foods are collected as daily supplements to relishes and soups (417). In Swaziland, a wide range of wild foods are used; these increase with staple food shortages (111-113). A similar pattern is shown in Ghana (375).
Having a diverse resource base with a range of different trees, plants and insect species increases the options for maintaining food security. Different products complement each other with seasonally different patterns of availability, the potential for storage for 'hunger season' use or for use in times of extreme food stress (387; 412). In Venezuela and Colombia, Jessenia fruit is a protein substitute when hunting and fishing returns are poor (177).
Recent work has demonstrated the strong linkages between forests, trees and food security (394-399; 408). This is increasingly being taken into account in the development of forest projects and policies. However the role of wild foods in agricultural systems under stress is less well documented and an acknowledgement of their importance for food security has yet to influence mainstream thinking (703).
The seasonal variability of wild food supply from different sources influences the food acquisition strategies of pastoralists (378; 383; 444), agriculturalists (384; 439), fisherfolk and hunters (67; 429) and hunter-gatherers (48; 49; 92-94; 216; 376) alike. Seasonal variations in food intake from different wild sources have direct effects on nutritional status (404; 410 for Bangladesh; 405; 406 for Mali; 409 for Ghana; 430 for Zaire).
The seasonal availability of wild foods will depend on the patterns of fruiting, leaf production and population cycles of the species harvested. Complex plant phenologies may result in uncertain availabilities of foods (402 for beechnuts). In temperate climates, oak (Quercus spp) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) trees produce rich fruits harvests at a frequency partly determined by temperature - every 3-4 years in warmer countries and every 7-8 in cooler (601). During the medieval warm epoch (AD 950-1300), people relied heavily on pigs which in turn fed on the abundant tree fruits. Insect or larvae availability is often associated with the early rainy season (140; 430). Seasonal complementarities between food sources is a feature of a diverse wild food base (431 for south west Tanzania).
In the miombo woodlands of Tanzania, a few tree species provide food for the Sandawe throughout the year (425). In Zimbabwe, indigenous wild fruits seasonally complement exotic fruit trees as food sources in the communal areas, with indigenous trees providing an important dry season supplement (663). Wild foods that produce at times when other foods are in short supply are particularly important. In dryland farming areas of north India, Zizyphus spp. fruits provide food between February and April, when other foods are scarce (558). Similarly, locust bean (Parkia biocor) provides dry season food in West Africa where it is prepared into the fermented dawa-dawa dish (385). In the Kalahari, the Basarwa use nuts of the Mongongo tree (Ricinodendron rautanenii) as a dry season staple food (415). When food is short in Bhutan, farmers gather wild avocadoes, bamboo shoots, orchids and mushrooms, as well as giant wild yams that grow to more than 1 metre in length (401a).
Some wild foods can be harvested all year round. For instance the products of the oil palm (Elaeis guineesis) are an important part of the West African diet (665), as are foods derived from the sago palm (Metroxylon sp.) for people in SE Asia and Oceania (162). Many wild foods can be collected and stored for later use. Wild grass grains are stored along with crops (273), nuts and berries can be processed and stored, wild vegetable leaves may be dried (79; 86; 426) and insects or wild meat can be preserved for later consumption (170).
Historically wild foods have been an important component of local coping strategies at times of severe food shortage. Documentation of 'famines' in Malawi (449), Zimbabwe (411), Sudan (392; 443), northern Nigeria (424; 452), Ethiopia (434) and India (379; 432; 436; 441) shows the importance of wild foods in sustaining livelihoods. Such food sources remain important in many areas today, particularly for those with few direct or exchange entitlements.
In the Bihar famine in India during 1965-6 severely affected villages were found to be eating a lot of wild vegetable leaves (401b; 416). In Britain, the famine caused by the rains of 1314-16 that killed 10-15% population was more severe than previous famines because of the reduced availability of wild resources following agricultural expansion (601). But those resources that did exist were crucial for survival even the king ate the bark of trees. In the 1974-5 famine in Bangladesh a range of wild foods proved important in people's coping strategies (433). In the 1973 famine in Sudan, the Berti of western Sudan collected wild grass seeds and survived off these (407). This pattern was repeated in the 1984-5 famine where grass seeds and tree fruits (notably Boscia senegalensis) were collected in order to survive (10; 392). A similar pattern is reported in Wollo, Ethiopia where leafy plants, plants with seeds, berries, fruits and roots were incorporated into the diet during the food shortages during the 1980s (434). In the Senegalese Ferlo, Grewia bicolor fibre and Combretum aculeatum seeds are consumed only in extreme conditions (377). In extreme cases, wild foods may be the only food available. For instance, 41% of the Karimoja population in Uganda was subsisting off wild weeds and bush fruits and seeds during the famine of 1980 (381).
Monitoring and Early Warning Systems
Monitoring the use of such foods has been suggested as a possible local level 'early warning' indicator of impending famine (384; 392; 420; 451). The increased rate of collection of wild foods generally precedes large-scale asset disposal or migration. Compared with direct measurement of food consumption or height/weight relationships, a wild food indicator may prove easier information to collect. But this needs a greater understanding of indigenous responses to food insecurity (400a-d), together with the evolution locally specific drought monitoring strategies.
Resource Access and Vulnerability
Reduced access to wild food resources increases vulnerability, particularly of poorer groups, women and children (386b; 445). But changes in access to common property resource land, shifts in tenure systems and reduced diversity of wild foods due to environmental change may reduce the supply of such foods to vulnerable groups. In many cases, such changes in land resource productivity and access have adversely affected the food security of vulnerable groups.
However other changes may occur to compensate for the loss of wild food resources. Increased access to alternative food sources in drought (food aid, commercial supplies etc) may mean that wild foods are becoming less significant in famine coping strategies in many areas. In Botswana, the commercialisation of food product markets, combined with the provision of food relief has meant the decline in use of wild food products in times of food shortage (382). Similarly, in India wild food collection has significantly declined as a response to food scarcity when use is compared between the 1965-6 famine and 1987 (432). This may be due to the improvement of food distribution and supply systems in India over the past 20 years.
Improved food marketing and distribution systems are important components of ensuring household food security, along with safety nets of food relief in serious situations. However, reliance on the market and social welfare mechanisms of the state may be insufficient for the very poor and vulnerable groups in society. For them, the hidden harvest of emergency food will remain important in many areas.
The nutritional value of wild foods
Wild foods are a part of rural people's diets not only during periods of food shortages, but also on a daily basis (90; 396; 398; 400a; 466; 490; 491; 493, 494; 545). Most dietary studies emphasize the value of calorific intake from staples. However, the amounts of wild foods consumed, their frequencies of consumption as well as their nutrient contents have also been explored (301, 316, 459, 462, 465, 466, 493, 504, 556). It is this daily consumption of wild products which contributes to overall nutritional well being. Game and fish are major sources of protein and fat, while wild vegetables, fruits and seeds supply minerals, vitamins and fats. Even wild flowers, such as Fernaldia pandurata of Central America, are eaten (883). A range of studies provide evidence for the every day use of wild products as side dishes or snack foods and sometimes as replacements for staples. The chemical composition of some wild food sources has also been analysed demonstrating their nutritional significance (458; 467; 473; 475; 480; 481; 492; 507; 512; 516; 517; 529; 532; 534; 542; 559; 561; 568).
Dietary Diversity and the Role of Wild Products
It is access to a wide range of products and the resulting dietary diversity that contributes to nutritional well being (398; 497; 498; 500; 508; 518; 526; 613). Better nutritional status is associated with proximity to forests or the presence of a home gardens or orchards (152; 493; 509; 545; 551; 613). An increase in the production of fruits and vegetables in Mexico helped to improve the nutritional status of villagers (502). In a study of two different ecological regions, in southern Zimbabwe, it was found that families in the zone in which species diversity was greater had a more balanced diet during the dry season (172). Dietary diversity is also crucial as these various nutrients interact with one another within the body. For example, fats enhance the absorption of vitamins A, D, and E (398; 399) or oxalic acid found in leafy vegetables may inhibit absorption of calcium (541). Non-dietary modifiers and anti-nutritional factors may also affect the nutritional impact of wild foods (505; 561).
The appearance of wild foods is seasonal for many products (140; 152; 504). Their presence may coincide during times of food shortages, but their harvesting can also reflect the flexibility of farmers' procurement strategies which take advantage of the natural abundance of these species (518). In Newfoundland, for example, the plural economy of households comprises a mix of hunting and fishing with potato and vegetable cultivation. When the weather inhibits cultivation, it brings the cod close to the shore; when disturbs fish movements, it favours farming (429).
The Impact of Social Change
The collection of wild foods, however, appears to be diminishing as populations grow, with decreasing access to collection sites, and with more people participating in the cash economy (495, 509). Commercial foods and drinks are sometimes held in greater esteem than wild food equivalents which may be viewed as items only for consumption by the poor (429, 504, 533, 542). Likewise, new aversions may be adopted, for instance, the Yukpa no longer consume insects as regularly as in the past (356). As the daily activities of individuals change, so too does their knowledge of wild products plants. In Swaziland, now that young men spend more time working for wages rather than herding, they no longer recognise as many plants as other local people (111-113).
Dietary change is often associated with social upheavals caused by natural disasters or forced movements of populations (see 374-452 for literature on wild foods and drought/food security; 479; 484; 520; 523; 535; 557; 562; 564). Resettlement or refugee migrations often necessitate adaptations to a changed food base (456; 501; 554).
A range of wild animals are important in the nutrition of agriculturalists, pastoralists and forest dwellers. It is often small game (rodents, monkeys, small buck) that are nutritionally the most significant. Among the Amahuaca swidden cultivators of Peru, 40% of their food was obtained from hunting (181). In Botswana, all the meat consumed by bushmen was wild, while 80% of all meat consumed by livestock owners was wild (301).
Comparisons with Domesticated Food Sources
When the nutrient contents of wild foods are compared with cultivated foods, there is of course great variability. Some wild animals such as capybara and iguana (Lacerta iguana) can have similar protein, fat and energy contents as pigs, cattle and chickens (299). Other species, for example of ungulates, may have leaner meat and less fat (316; 534). Ants, grubs and caterpillars have similar energy, protein and fat contents as pork sausage and beef liver (54). Over 1,300 insects have been classified as edible (546, 547) and are sources of protein and fat (152; 487, 504, 545). Some insects can even have a higher iron and protein content than fish (152). During the rainy season, insects contribute 12% of the total animal protein to the diets of men and 26% to women of the Tukanoan Indians of Colombia (487). Children are often collectors (485). If game is in short supply, insects can substitute proteins and fats (49; 487). An important consideration is that wild game can have greater production efficiencies than domestic livestock. For example, the capybara is 3.5 times more efficient at converting food to meat than cattle (316; 354). Also such wild species adapted to the local environments are often better able to resist diseases.
Adults and children frequently consume leafy vegetables as a side dish. These vegetables are often wild or a weed of agriculture (148; 175; 476, 486, 494, 504, 516, 528, 531, 541, 528, 533). Nutritionally, they are high in protein, calcium, vitamin A and iron (494, 504, 510, 521, 522, 543,559, 563). Leafy vegetables, rich in lysine, are perfect complements to lysine-deficient maize (470, 471, 514, 541). Wild yams are often staples (48, 475, 504). Fruits are usually snacks consumed between meals or when out walking (48; 49; 111-113; 541). They are viewed mainly as children's foods (9; 170; see 608-630). The fruit of cultivated Bactris gasipaes is a source of protein and carbohydrates and can produce more macronutrients per hectare than maize (888). The mongongo (Ricinodendron rautanenii) wild fruit tree is a staple in the diet of the !Kung San bushmen (92-94; 566). Its fruits and kernels are sources of calories, protein and minerals. Other tree fruits are also known to be important for human nutrition (eg. 459; 465; 468; 472; 473; 513; 517; 529; 536; 537; 558; 564).
Wild plants can have higher fat, protein, mineral and vitamin contents than cultivated species (464, 541). Wild grains may also be more nutritious than cultivated varieties. The wild rice Zizania aquatica has higher concentrations of protein, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and vitamins Bl and B2 than cultivated Oryza sativa (532). The wild rice bean (Vigna minima) was also found to be of equal or greater nutritional value than the cultivated species (V. umbellata).
In Africa, the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is often protected and is an important source of fat, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin A throughout the year (457, 480, 504). Jessenia spp. are important oilseeds in South America providing oil and protein. The quality of this oil and protein is comparable to olive oil and animal protein (457, 888). Similarly, the jojoba plant (548) and other plants from arid lands (560) have potential for oil production. The wild sago palm (Metroxylon spp.) is a staple in parts of Southeast Asia (454; 474). In Northern Africa, a main source of fat is derived from shea butter produced form the kernels of Vitellaria paradoxa or Butyrospermum, spp. (673).
Despite this great diversity and supply of nutrient-rich foods, malnutrition is commonplace in the Third World. Protein-energy malnutrition in which calories from staples and/or the body's amino acid building blocks from proteins are lacking is the most widespread form (506; 507; 544; 552; 553). Other deficiencies prevalent include iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B2, iron, calcium and fat (533; 551; 613). Vitamin A deficiency can result in blindness and affects approximately 6 million children in the world (496). Children and pregnant and lactating women are the most vulnerable to deficiencies.
To what extent can wild foods prevent such deficiencies? Can protein or energy-rich wild foods help to alleviate malnutrition? In light of the higher incidence of malnutrition among children, their foraging activities provide essential supplies of fats and proteins from insects and of vitamins and minerals from plants and fruits. Specific plants may even be able to improve milk production of mothers.
The presence of parasitic diseases and other illnesses means it is often difficult to link malnutrition to the lack of consumption of a specific food. Few such studies have been attempted. A notable exception is the increased incidence of goitre and cretinism among the Azanade of Central Africa as a result of the replacement of the home-produced ash salt from wild plants with purchased iodine-deficient salts (545). Benefits have occurred after dietary change. In one example in India, the incidence of vitamin A deficiency declined in children following the increased consumption of mangoes (489). Similar changes occurred in Brazil after the increased consumption of buriti fruits (Mauritia vinifera) whose oil fraction which is also high in beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A (525).
There is a clear need to incorporate nutritional and dietary concerns into forestry and agricultural plans. Greater linkages in studies could be made between the nutrient content of wild foods, dietary surveys of their consumption and anthropometric assessments. Wild foods often provide key supplements to the main diet and are of great nutritional importance. Without the understanding of the complementarities between staple crop foods and wild food intake, agricultural planning will continue to be dominated by major crops to the exclusion of other, often nutritionally very important, wild products (466; 488; 490; 491; 499; 539; 540).
Due to the extremely large number of references cited in this article (well over 200), the reader is referred to the original source for cited literature. The citation numbers in the text correspond to the numbers in the bibliography of the original source. See below under Original Source for the citation and information about where to purchase the book.
This article is excerpted with the generous permission of the publisher and authors from:
Scoones, I., M. Melnyk and J. Pretty. 1992. The Hidden Harvest: Wild Foods and Agricultural Systems, A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography. IIED, London.
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About the authors' organization
This article was authored by Ian Scoones, Mary Melnyk and Jules N. Pretty, and published by the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods (SARL) Programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The SARL Programme seeks to promote sustainable, equitable, decentralised agri-food systems based on local diversity and participatory democracy, thereby contributing to improved livelihoods and entitlements, poverty reduction, and long-term ecological and economic sustainability. By working to develop more effective and equitable forms of agriculture and natural resource management, the SARL Programme helps different interest groups to understand trade-offs relating to their livelihood strategies, identify common ground, and negotiate pathways to positive actions that support rural regeneration.
Established in 1986, the aim of the SARL Programme was to provide key policy makers, project designers, and rural development practitioners with concepts, tools, and methods to put into practice the challenges facing sustainable agricultural development. Since then, the SARL approach has evolved, and has emerged out of a growing recognition that sustainable agriculture and rural development cannot be treated in isolation from broader ecological, economic, social, and political processes. It is these broader processes, particularly counterproductive and inappropriate policies, and weak and ineffective institutions, which are limiting the spread of sustainable agriculture and the regeneration of rural economies.
Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods Programme, International Institute for Environment and Development, 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H 0DD, United Kingdom; Tel: +44 (0) 20 7388-2117; Fax: +44 (0)20 7388-2826; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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