Communities all over the world utilize wild plants for many reasons. Here in the United States, the foods have fallen out of favor for the majority of citizens and have been replaced by a diet composed primarily of domesticated staple crops like corn, wheat, and soy. Even though the evidence is clear that on average, wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, this fact alone may not be enough to recruit the U.S. population.
But if not for the nutrition, why else would individuals adopt a lifestyle of eating “weeds?” Perhaps the answer lies amongst the residents of Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe, who supplement their tropical agricultural diet of cassava, maize, millet, sorghum, and wheat with wild plants they gather within their community (1) . They don’t earn much money either, as most are unemployed and make less than $50 per month. Foraging for them, it turns out, is not only a means for nutrition supplementation, but also for food access and security.
Take a close look at the nutrient levels of the 5 most common wild edibles consumed in Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe (click to enlarge).
Amaranthus hybridus, commonly known as smooth pigweed, is an excellent source of calcium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C (all above the DRI). The ratio of nutrition to caloric density in all of the foods listed is quite high, meaning individuals are receiving high amounts of vitamins and minerals without consuming many calories (when combined with staple crops, like maize, caloric intake is increased). This nutrition persists into the dry seasons, when periods of drought create food shortages. Because the residents preserve the wild plants through different methods, they are able to provide a buffer against cold and dry spells when they occur. The foraged food, therefore, plays two important roles in Shurugwi District: nutrition and food security.
In the United States, 46.5 million people, or 15% of the population, live in poverty. Many inhabit food deserts and have access only to convenience stores and gas stations. Efforts are being made to alleviate this problem, but very few focus on the massive potential that one solution contains. What if there was a shift in focus to wild food identification and foraging, as well as preservation and storage? As the inhabitants of Shurugwi District demonstrate, a strategy is necessary to ensure food access and security, not only involving the cultivation of crops through agriculture, but the sustainable harvest of wild edibles as well.
Yes, certain wild edibles alone may not meet the caloric needs of those who consume them. But any effort to increase the consumption of these plants (and/or animals) is a huge step forward for every human being in the quest for sustainability, survival, and health.