Is commercial foraging a green idea?


Foraging is predicted to be the restaurant industry’s No. 1 food sourcing trend for 2011. Is this a good thing?

On Monday, BBC News aired a newscast called “Foraging: Damaging our woodlands?” about how the UK’s commercial foragers are disrupting the delicate ecosystems of Britain’s forests by harvesting too much.

Commercial foragers told the BBC it’s in their interest to harvest responsibly and sustainably, but at the same time more plants = more money. Would these profitable businesses willingly quit if the ecosystem started shows sign of stress? It seems like a conflict of interest.

Here in the U.S., commercial foraging is only just taking flight, led by a San Francisco-based company called ForageSF, which in June was reported by Time magazine to sell the wild plants they harvest at a market with 2,000 customers. ForageSF also puts on “underground” $100-per-plate wild food dinners.

Iso Rabins, head of ForageSF, says the company harvests sustainably. I reached out to him to find out exactly how they do that, and our interview is forthcoming. As a forager in Portland, I sometimes have trouble finding substantial amounts of wild food I feel comfortable harvesting, especially with the standard only-take-20%-of-a-stand rule. So I’m quite curious to know how the Bay Area wilderness can withstand that level of impact.

Free bittercress

Interestingly, when I asked well-known foraging educators John Kallas of Portland and Steve Brill of NYC what they thought about the trend, both said they’re not worried.

“People can pick [weeds] til the cows come home and its not going to hurt the environment,” Kallas said. And as for native wild plants? If “people go out and harvest everything they see – they clearcut – that is a problem,” but on the other hand, Kallas said, “The restaurants will find pretty quickly that they can’t get a good, regular supply.”

Brill said something similar: Restaurants sometimes ask him to teach their staff how to forage for food sources, but once trained, they “never follow through, mainly because it’s much more labor-intensive than just ordering food from their suppliers.”

Are you concerned about commercial foraging? Or do you welcome it?

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29 thoughts on “Is commercial foraging a green idea?

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  5. This was is an interesting post. I can only speak for myself of course. Where I live in NY I can say there aren’t any people foreging that I know of. There are some plants that grow wild here that I collect, and I enjoy it. I have used them to both make food and very small batchs of incense.
    After trolling the internet I have found a few places that sell the seeds of the plants I harvest and I am planning on growing them in pots this spring. I also gave some thought to simply spreading the seeds in an area where I have collected those plants. But a good eye opener none the less.

  6. Good post!

    I would have to say it is wrong, especially in the UK. I have always been under the impression that if restaurants want wild food so much they should bloody well go and pick it themselves to curb the craze of smash n grab foragers.

    I have (with smatterings of guilt) once sold about a kilo of trumpet chanterelles to a pub- only because I had far too many and didn’t want to see them go to waste. Foraging be it for plants or most certainly fungi needs to be controlled- only pick what you need for your own consumption. I have spotted Miles Irving out ransacking a favourite cep spot of mine before in Sussex, he’s from Kent and should stick to reaping his own county! or the pitch fork will have to come out…

  7. In herbalists’ circles, the long-time “standard” is to never harvest more than 10% of a stand — and there is a growing number of ethical wildcrafters that consider that number way too high for most native plants. Weedy plants — fast-spreading, fast-growing plants such as dandelion, chickweed, bittercress, or garlic mustard — are a different story entirely: They’re introduced and they’re plentiful. Their stands grow, often, even when harvested frequently.

    But this brings up the question: What practices constitute ethical wildcrafting? To paraphrase PNW wildcrafting guru Howie Brounstein, much of ethical wildcrafting centers around *not picking*. Not picking plants that you don’t need, not picking plants at an inappropriate stage of life, not picking plants that you didn’t intend to harvest — and most of all, monitoring the stand year-’round, over time, and not picking plants on most (if not all) of those visits.

    When you think of “commercial” farming, what scale does that call to mind? Do you find that scale desirable, sustainable, and beautiful for the world that you want to live in? I prefer to support farms that grow food for their communities. Those are the farms that I want in my ideal world. Same with foraging for food or wildcrafting for medicine: I’d like to see a world in which we keep the scale smaller — foraging for family, friends, neighbors, community — to keep accountability real and intention heartfelt.

    And, truly, what makes you feel like you have a respectful, mutual relationship with the ecosystem that you’re harvesting from? What practices make you smile when you think of what your great-grandkids will see, harvest, touch, eat, and breathe? For me, those are important questions.

  8. Interesting topic & discussion. Thanks Becky!

    The Kallas quote, ‘People can pick [weeds] til the cows come home and its not going to hurt the environment’ seems pretty complacent to me. Maybe it’s different in the UK, with a greater population density than in the States. Right now, having never come across anyone in my locality doing anything more than blackberry-picking, I see a great abundance and diversity of food sources that I’m practically alone (beside birds, rabbits & squirrels) in harvesting. It’s hard to imagine just me depleting the landscape of burdock, dandelion or chickweed, but if the weight of calorific requirements of my county’s 1.1 million inhabitants were to suddenly fall on the ‘non-productive’, ‘waste’ land which I rely on… I don’t think the edible plants would last a week. Only largescale agriculture (or maybe super-intensive permaculture) can feed – in fact generate – a human population that big. And that’s in the short term until the rest of the ecology collapses under the strain. Someone (a non-forager, I think) once put it to me this way:

    I suspect you wouldn’t fare very well if you were searching for wild foods not in the midst of millions of people eating farmed food but in the midst of millions of starving people […] I suspect there will be more than enough people willing to eat just about anything to scour the land.

    I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Anyone else have a clue? The hope, I suppose, is that the supermarkets will collapse and agriculture will cease to be viable in a long-enough timescale for new foraging cultures to emerge and stabilise without strip-mining the vegetation from the landscape during the fastest convulsions of change. We’ll see how it pans out, I guess…

    Consurrectionary said:

    I wonder if anyone in the U.K. worried before that article was written? I suppose it’s an issue of scale on how big a trend or fad it is, eh?

    BBC reported on this last October, it having been a particular suitable Autumn for ‘shrooms. Caroline Davey, aka ‘Fat Hen‘, a forager in Cornwall (hence more relaxed than me in the bustling South-East!) who was interviewed briefly in the piece had this to say shortly after, which seems relevant:

    I do think that taking all there is from the woods is really bad practice, selfish and short sighted. It leaves nothing for the enjoyment of other people or for wildlife. I have heard that some commercial foragers are just taking everything, edible and poisonous and then getting them sorted by experts to sell on to the restaurant trade. Bad news. There’s nothing wrong with foraging for wild food but there is something wrong with taking everything for a quick buck and leaving nothing for wildlife and for other’s enjoyment. I do encourage all people to get out foraging as it’s a brilliant way to begin to have a relationship with nature. I don’t believe in conserving habitats like museum pieces, I believe the more people that have an interactive relationship with nature the better and there’s no better way for the average person to have that connection than through foraging for wild food. Historically we would have all had a real and deep relationship with the land and would have known our surroundings intimately with a real knowledge of the edible and medicinal plants of our locality. The more people that have this experience, the more likely it is that we will look after the land and have some natural and uncontaminated habitats left for future generations. So, in a nut shell, get foraging, but do it with respect for the land, wildlife, other people and with sustainability in mind. X (link)

    all the best

    PS: I just want to say: Bollocks to regulation, prohibition or punitive laws. Foraging is about Freedom and Wildness. I do it to escape from civilisation’s hold on me. So, Chris from Bedgebury, who (according to the BBC) has ‘vowed to do everything he can to stop people picking wild food’ – I’d like to see you try! (Seriously – how could they enforce something like that?)

    • Ian,

      Thank you for contributing your thoughts and all those fantastic links! This really is a wonderful conversation.


      • Thanks, my pleasure :)

        To clarify: I oppose state regulation, prohibition & punitive laws. People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land. If, on the other hand, Chris from Bedgebury (for example) has an issue with me personally about things I’m doing on land that he also uses, I will gladly discuss the matter with him one-to-one and see about coming to some mutually beneficial arrangement. Place-based tribal law, not the dictates of unaccountable, centralised bureaucracy.

    • Ondisturbedground wrote,

      “Someone (a non-forager, I think) once put it to me this way:

      I suspect you wouldn’t fare very well if you were searching for wild foods not in the midst of millions of people eating farmed food but in the midst of millions of starving people […] I suspect there will be more than enough people willing to eat just about anything to scour the land.

      I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer.”

      We would never be foraging in the midst of millions of people for more than a few weeks. There are simply not enough high calorie foods available during most of the year to support a large population. The population would plummet quickly. And if this population entered the wilds during winter or a time when little was available the population would decline even quicker.

      One thing Rebecca’s “Living on Foraged Foods” weeks has clearly demonstrated is the need for foragers to store food as the First People did. Living day-to-day off of freshly foraged food simply isn’t feasible in most of the world.

      • Tom said:

        We would never be foraging in the midst of millions of people for more than a few weeks.

        Agreed. My concern was with what would happen to the land during those few weeks with millions of people scouring it for anything remotely edible, and whether any kind of human population could be supported afterwards. I read, for instance, about certain provinces in war-torn, drought-ridden Afghanistan where Western visitors observed:

        […] numerous groups of women and children scavenging the valley fields for weeds, roots, and grass to eat […] children digging in the fields for roots to eat and use as firewood. Leaves from the trees were also being eaten […] In many of the villages there was no agricultural activity because of drought, no seeds were available for planting, and much of the livestock had either died or been sold off. Girls were being offered as brides “for as little as 100 kgs of wheat flour” (link)

        Elsewhere people were desperate enough to eat grass, mixed with what little home-grown barley had survived the drought.

        I’ve come to realise that the modest ecological gains in affluent Western countries (eg: slightly increased woodland, less polluted rivers, cleaner air in the UK) over the last century only came about because we cast our nets wider for imports, thus effectively exporting the full impact of our lifestyles to be felt in famines, pollution, waste mountains etc. in the 3rd World. My county is known as the most wooded in England. What happens when gas and electricity, for instance, becomes too expensive and the population’s exorbitant heating & other energy ‘needs’ fall once again on local resources? Looking at them in a certain way, the trees around here appear like phantoms, living on borrowed time.

        Sorry for all the doom… Of course that’s not the only way you can look at trees. I think wild animals just concern themselves with possibilities – “if it’s possible to make a living here, then that’s what I’ll do to the best of my abilities for me & my children, no matter what anybody says”. Worrying about the future seems like a waste of time to that frame of mind.

        Best wishes and apologies for all the tangential thinking!

  9. Here in the East, ramps and ostrich ferns are both collected on a commercial scale, and both have had problems of over harvest at the local level.

    Bloodroot and several other plants are also collected commercially for the drug industry.

    There is at least one ramps farm, and there are organizations encouraging people in Appalachia to grow plants for the drug industry in order to lessen the strain on wild populations.


  10. Glad Brill and Kallas aren’t worried. I wonder if anyone in the U.K. worried before that article was written? I suppose it’s an issue of scale on how big a trend or fad it is, eh?

    Is there a better response besides wait & see?

    Can we plant wild edibles and cash in on this craze? Will anyone know the difference if we scatter seeds on unused lots? Can I sell the plants I “weed” out of my veggie patch?

  11. I think if people really start to get interested in eating “weeds” you’ll see more farms planting native plants as food crops. Native plants do better in worse soil and often cause less impact on the environment.

    If only people would eat weeds instead of cheese burgers.

  12. Foraging is such a labor intensive activity I would question any long term profits that would keep it going beyond a “fad” for lack of a better word. It would be much nicer and more sustainable if restaurants would take on a more active role in establishing permaculture and utilizing more local resources on a more consistent basis. Coming up with more creative ways of preparing and presenting what an area has to offer seasonally.
    I wonder what ripples might be caused if/when someone cuts corners, harvests to quickly w/o sure identification of a wild edible and a patron is harmed or killed due to a minor mistake.

    • I wonder what happens if the restaurants are buying the wild food from professional foragers and are totally cool with changing up their offerings from day to day? Might that then increase demand?

  13. I love all these thoughtful replies. It’s a complex issue to be sure, and I think people really need to be talking about it.

    Peppergrass, my thought is not that anyone should ban foraging — what a bad day that would be for people like me! — but that there may be good reason to argue that it should be restricted to personal use only.

    One of the things I think is so special about wild food is that it’s free and available to anyone who seeks it. Foraging is like stepping into another world in that way. Once you make a commodity of wild food, you change that.

    On the other hand, yes, it would be cool to be paid to forage and yes, I can understand the idea of compensating someone for their time in getting me a wild plant — it’s labor intensive work. But I also think there’s something very special about walking in that wild world where living creatures are not commodities.

  14. Thanks for bringing me up to speed on this issue. I see it as a two-fold dilemma. On one hand people are recognizing and remembering that food is everywhere and folks are now passing on the knowledge of wild edible plants – which is awesome.
    On the other hand people now want to make a profit and make it commercialized (even that word gives me the creeps). In a way it is potentially simply stripping more resources in order to turn a profit and sadly may just be a trend.
    To look on the bright side (to stay positive and hope for the best) my wish is that these new ‘jobs’ of harvesting wild plants will:
    1. Open the eyes of folks who perhaps never would have been interested in learning these skills.
    2. That these newly awakened people will in turn pass on the skills.
    3. Folks harvesting these weeds will be knowledgeable and practice safe harvesting especially because the majority of these weeds are healing damaged soils and lands and will be taking up toxins and the like.
    4. That somehow we can balance the rhythm of nature with the rhythm business.
    Just like with every other trend that is cropping up everyday it is tainted with the way our society lives and a capitalistic economic system – I believe we and the Earth can never be truly healthy or viable as long as we are trying to combine the natural lifestyle with a modern, civilized one.

  15. If commercial foraging becomes a problem then we’ll need to limit it. A more likely result is that they’ll place limits on personal foraging and start raising revenue from foraging licenses like they do with hunting licenses. And I could see commercial foraging rights being sold, too. Like fishing, the lions share will likely go to the corporations. Low paid immigrant labor will do the harvesting.

    The potential problem with the 20% rule is that even if it is followed there will be times when multiple foragers go over the same area. When the 4th forager finishes only 41% will remain. After the 6th forager 26% will remain…..

  16. Yes, I believe it is a concern. It’s a different world than when one or two “oddballs’ (as I used to be deemed for my interest in it) ran out and picked chickweed, lamb’s quarters, dock, etc. for personal use, even stinging nettle and mullein! It will be a different thing when incorporated companies start doing it. They will have to figure out a way to replenish the supply. Look how they rid theland of the ginseng when that became so popular. And you could hardly find a trillium anywhere, even though that was just for aesthetics. I wish they would just go back to researching their GMO’s and let us find our own food! They’ll be going after the private flower beds next, for the lutein and zeanthins in marigold and the bug killer in painted daisies!! Now we are going to have to form a PETA for flora!!

  17. Excellent reporting on something I’ve been curious about. The 20% rule – if that’s 20% of the stand when YOU find it, couldn’t that eventually approach devastation in diminishing amounts?

    As the population explodes exponentially, I suspect prudence rapidly declines – just saying.

  18. Commercial foraging, in the abstract, sounds like a good idea to me. Instead of having to get my own high-quality food, I can pay someone else to do it. Win-win.

    If the forager’s pursuit of profit endangers the ecosystem, however, it sounds like a bad idea. But this is a principle that extends beyond commercial foraging and encompasses all human endeavors: endangering the sustainability of a healthy ecosystem is probably a bad idea, and it seems doubly bad when done for the pursuit of short-term private gain.

    I suppose the real question is how could foraging be conducted in an ecologically responsible AND scalable (if not “upscale”) way, whether or not commercial transactions are involved (and I’m biased to think that human interactions involving land and other material resources will tend toward the character of reciprocity/exchange). If we answer that question, we will have something to run with.

    • Ben, you raise some great points. The land commercial foragers are using is public land. They’re taking a large share of a public resource for profit. Isn’t that a little like stealing books from the public library to sell on e-bay? Seems to me a little sketchy, like we’re footing the bill and betting the wilderness on good faith.

      Here’s a possible solution: How about wild food foragers harvest commercially on THEIR OWN PRIVATE LAND, and everyone else is allowed to harvest for personal use on public land?

      Now that would be in the public interest and it would allow commercial foragers to keep doing business. It would encourage them to use sustainable techniques because the land would be finite, and it would help the restaurants because it would likely lead to some amount of cultivation so there would be a more regular supply. That way we can KEEP IT WILD!

      Another point RE sustainability to consider: The large-scale foraging that was going on in centuries past was using comparatively gigantic swaths of land with comparatively minute populations of humans to feed. If someone’s going into the woods and taking 2,000 people’s servings worth of nettles at one time, that’s a far greater impact than that same one person going in and harvesting enough for herself or her family.

  19. Do they have any data that shows the trees’ health is being damaged/threatened by mushroom picking? I do understand the concern abt. indiscriminate foragers who take every single mushroom/edible plant they find (altho I have to believe those types are few), but I’m not sure that simply banning all collection of wild food on public lands is the answer. Why not regulate it w/ licensing and so forth, as has been done in other countries? Speaking for myself in the US, my state does not have a license to pick mushrooms, but if it did I would be happy to purchase one.

    I would love to forage for restaurants!

  20. Great subject. I would also think that in real life, it won’t be a signficiant problem since it can’t be a predictable, steady, reliable source of supply. That will protect the food source from the restaurants I would think…
    Very interesting that they said for the restaurants that they do not follow through.

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