Can sustainable foraging go mainstream?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

"My foraging activities contribute to the growing conversation, the perennial conversation, as to what it means to be human, to live a good life, and to live sustainably," says Drennan.
"My foraging activities contribute to the growing conversation, the perennial conversation, as to what it means to be human, to live a good life, and to live sustainably," says Drennan.

Related tags: Agriculture

Commercial foraging is on the rise, influencing mainstream flavour trends and giving companies a sense of heritage, say market analysts - but is it as eco-friendly as it seems?

Gracing the menus of many top restaurants, the four Fs of foraging - flowers, fungi, fruit and foliage - are becoming increasingly known, not just to foodies but to food companies.

Mintel analyst David Turner told FoodNavigator that wild ingredients have a growing importance in food trends and can take a company beyond organic and give it 'a sense of heritage'.

Wild ingredients – while still niche – could be easily used to create seasonal limited editions, such as Gordon’s sloe gin, as usually only a little of the ingredient is required to give flavour.  

Self-proclaimed ‘wild food experimentalist’, Fergus Drennan, who runs foraging courses in the UK told FoodNavigator: “Working with wild food is a wonderful way to creatively embrace unique flavours, colours, and textures, as well as cooking and preservation techniques, and harvesters supply from clean, unpolluted areas.” 

And although, for Turner, scaling up foraging to a commercial scale is almost an oxymoron in terms as by its nature it is ‘self-done’, foraging on a commercial scale is becoming increasingly common.

Drennan used to supply Jamie Oliver’s restaurants with wild ingredients, while Forager.org.uk is one UK-based company which sells wild ingredients online.

Picked by its in-house team as well as a network of freelance foragers who send in supplies, the best-selling items from its online shop are sea vegetables, wild garlic, and elderflower.

A grey area of sustainability?

But Turner warned of over-zealous corporate foragers who have depleted stocks of wild mushrooms in the past.

This is something that Irving vehemently rejects, saying that Forager operates in a sustainable way.

“No one in this business in the UK would work like that if such a scenario were possible. As it is we are basically specialised grazers, like [when] mowing the lawn the plants simply regenerate once cut.

“Most of what we harvest is stem and leaf material. The plants are both abundant and robust. We are dealing in the fat of the land, not scarce and vulnerable species,” ​he told FoodNavigator.

Another issue is supply. While foraging for wild ingredients allows companies, suppliers and individuals to eat without the massive habitat loss associated with conventional farming, there’s also the undeniable fact that it is never going to feed a burgeoning world population.  So can it still be considered sustainable in this sense?

Drennan believes that this is missing the point. It’s not about trying to feed everyone, rather complementing the conventional farming systems –“huge resource-hungry industrial and unsustainable” - ​that we already have in place.

“In a very small way, I see myself as helping to keep traditions of wild food use alive and relevant to our unique historical situation – at least in the more developed world,” ​he said.

This is something reiterated by Irving: “We think humans can do better and that food systems are the biggest factor in the change that needs to happen. So we are happy to be part of that change, both through what we do … and the [communication] platform it gives us.”

So could foraging influence big food companies with a more eco-friendly ethos? Drennan doesn’t think so.

Anything mass produced for commercial purposes is embedded in a whole unsustainable infrastructure of supply and distribution.

“On the other hand if companies put some of their profits into green initiatives, that is still valuable and to be welcomed, even if, perhaps the primary motivation is for good PR.”

 

A grey area

Foraging occupies somewhat of a grey area in the UK, and a National Trust site​ which attempts to clarify the situation, seems to merely highlight the many overlapping circles of authority.

Under the Theft Act of 1968, if someone picks a plant from land that belongs to someone else, it is not an act of theft. But if that person decides to sell the plant, an act of theft has taken place.

With many top restaurants getting supplies of wild ingredients from foragers, a blind eye is often in turned.

In 2006 a judge threw out a case​ brought by the Forestry Commission against forager Mrs Tee-Hillman, and DEFRA even granted her with a unique licence to pick wild fungi for life in the New Forest.

But in 2010 the City of London Corporation confiscated mushrooms foraged from Epping Forest and prosecuted one of the pickers​.

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2 comments

questions and answers

Posted by Fergus Drennan,

The questions Niamh asked me, and what I said, in context:

Some foraging companies supply high profile and exclusive restaurants but you have refused to do so. Why is that?

Working with wild food is a wonderful way to creatively embrace unique flavours, colours, and textures, as well as cooking and preservation techniques, and when harvesters supply from clean, unpolluted areas, also an opportunity for chefs to work with fresh, local and highly nutritious ingredients. For me personally though, I don't resonate with the exclusivity that arises when only those with a high disposable income are able to afford to eat at such restaurants. I much prefer to run courses of various kinds and see people actively engaging with plants in the habitats where they grow, and engage, thereby, in the natural world more generally
You have worked with high profile chefs like Jamie Oliver. Why do you want to raise awareness of foraging?

10 years ago, I used to supply Jamie's 15 restaurant in London with some wild foods, and I also made a TV programme with his production company, but this doesn't mean I especially want to raise awareness of foraging in particular.....or not to. I'm drawn to foraging quite naturally, and just do what I do. If people find that interesting, and feel they can learn something from my activities, that's great, but if they don't, that's fine too.
Foraging is too small scale to feed masses of people. So can we say it is sustainable?

Questions as to the sustainability or otherwise of foraging beg a lot of questions. Sustainable where, when, for who? These days in the West, there are many food procurement possibilities, small-scale non-commercial foraging is just one amongst them. Depending on location and opportunity to source wild foods, there is generally no reason why some people, some of the time, can't sustainably add a few leaves to a salad, or a few fungi to a soup. There is also no reason why we should expect foraging to be able to feed masses of people.
As humans we have been foraging for 200 000 years +. In another 200 000 years + we will probably still be foraging. In a very very small way, I see myself as helping to keep traditions of wild food use alive and relevant to our unique historical situation – at least in the more developed world. In many countries people just get on and harvest wild foods without self-consciously identifying themselves as foragers. They are just getting on with the act of living. Unfortunately, in the West, just getting on with the act of living is predicated on a huge resource hungry industrial food, infrastructure and energy system that is inherently unsustainable in the long term.
Do you think a growing consumer awareness of sustainability issues / nature / foraging etc could have a positive impact on Big Food and company’s ethos?

No not really, not fundamentally; they may pay lip service to sustainability, and make their company seem all friendly and cuddly, but anything massed produced for commercial purposes is embedded in a whole unsustainable infrastructure of supply and distribution. This may seem overly cynical, but I think it's simply a realist perspective. Individuals working in 'Big Food' companies, might take early retirement and throw themselves into permaculture and sustainability projects though, after feeling the absurd cognitive dissonance of claiming to be green and environmental in an industry that is inherently not! Who knows......
On the other hand if companies put some of their profits into green initiatives, that is still valuable and to be welcomed, even if, perhaps the primary motivation is for good PR.
Foraging has a low carbon footprint as you do not cultivate your produce. But would you say it is also sustainable given that it cannot feed very many people?

I would say it is inherently sustainable if we give up the absurd notion that we need to feed the current world population exclusively through the consumption of wild foods. In the long term, that is the context of hundreds of thousands or indeed, millions of years, the human animal will most likely still forage. I doubt in the distant future that current population levels will be maintained, so the question of wild food procurement and the sustainability of feeding billions will not arise.

As a business your growth must be limited by the fact that you do not cultivate your own produce. So what spurs you on, what motivates you?
I run a few foraging courses, I'd hardly call it a business, more a glorified hobby, although it does have vocational aspects, given my commitment to it. On the other hand, if we broaden the concept of growth, I would definitely say my 'business' can grow without limits. In other words, I see my activities contributing to the growing conversation, the perennial conversation, both collectively and as individuals, as to what it means to be human, to live a good life, and to live sustainably, to live, eat and breathe as an integral and intricately embedded part of the natural world. Exploring answers to those questions is what motivates me and spurs me on.

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full context

Posted by Fergus Drennan,

These are the questions Niamh asked me and my answers in context.

Some foraging companies supply high profile and exclusive restaurants but you have refused to do so. Why is that?

Working with wild food is a wonderful way to creatively embrace unique flavours, colours, and textures, as well as cooking and preservation techniques, and when harvesters supply from clean, unpolluted areas, also an opportunity for chefs to work with fresh, local and highly nutritious ingredients. For me personally though, I don't resonate with the exclusivity that arises when only those with a high disposable income are able to afford to eat at such restaurants. I much prefer to run courses of various kinds and see people actively engaging with plants in the habitats where they grow, and engage, thereby, in the natural world more generally
You have worked with high profile chefs like Jamie Oliver. Why do you want to raise awareness of foraging?

10 years ago, I used to supply Jamie's 15 restaurant in London with some wild foods, and I also made a TV programme with his production company, but this doesn't mean I especially want to raise awareness of foraging in particular.....or not to. I'm drawn to foraging quite naturally, and just do what I do. If people find that interesting, and feel they can learn something from my activities, that's great, but if they don't, that's fine too.
Foraging is too small scale to feed masses of people. So can we say it is sustainable?

Questions as to the sustainability or otherwise of foraging beg a lot of questions. Sustainable where, when, for who? These days in the West, there are many food procurement possibilities, small-scale non-commercial foraging is just one amongst them. Depending on location and opportunity to source wild foods, there is generally no reason why some people, some of the time, can't sustainably add a few leaves to a salad, or a few fungi to a soup. There is also no reason why we should expect foraging to be able to feed masses of people.
As humans we have been foraging for 200 000 years +. In another 200 000 years + we will probably still be foraging. In a very very small way, I see myself as helping to keep traditions of wild food use alive and relevant to our unique historical situation – at least in the more developed world. In many countries people just get on and harvest wild foods without self-consciously identifying themselves as foragers. They are just getting on with the act of living. Unfortunately, in the West, just getting on with the act of living is predicated on a huge resource hungry industrial food, infrastructure and energy system that is inherently unsustainable in the long term.
Do you think a growing consumer awareness of sustainability issues / nature / foraging etc could have a positive impact on Big Food and company’s ethos?

No not really, not fundamentally; they may pay lip service to sustainability, and make their company seem all friendly and cuddly, but anything massed produced for commercial purposes is embedded in a whole unsustainable infrastructure of supply and distribution. This may seem overly cynical, but I think it's simply a realist perspective. Individuals working in 'Big Food' companies, might take early retirement and throw themselves into permaculture and sustainability projects though, after feeling the absurd cognitive dissonance of claiming to be green and environmental in an industry that is inherently not! Who knows......
On the other hand if companies put some of their profits into green initiatives, that is still valuable and to be welcomed, even if, perhaps the primary motivation is for good PR.
Foraging has a low carbon footprint as you do not cultivate your produce. But would you say it is also sustainable given that it cannot feed very many people?

I would say it is inherently sustainable if we give up the absurd notion that we need to feed the current world population exclusively through the consumption of wild foods. In the long term, that is the context of hundreds of thousands or indeed, millions of years, the human animal will most likely still forage. I doubt in the distant future that current population levels will be maintained, so the question of wild food procurement and the sustainability of feeding billions will not arise.

As a business your growth must be limited by the fact that you do not cultivate your own produce. So what spurs you on, what motivates you?
I run a few foraging courses, I'd hardly call it a business, more a glorified hobby, although it does have vocational aspects, given my commitment to it. On the other hand, if we broaden the concept of growth, I would definitely say my 'business' can grow without limits. In other words, I see my activities contributing to the growing conversation, the perennial conversation, both collectively and as individuals, as to what it means to be human, to live a good life, and to live sustainably, to live, eat and breathe as an integral and intricately embedded part of the natural world. Exploring answers to those questions is what motivates me and spurs me on.

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