Foraging – An introduction

by Evy Jokhova

Foraging for food is the initial way humans learnt to obtain food and most of this was through trial and error. Numerous discoveries were made by chance, some have had grave circumstances and knowledge of this was passed down through generations, accumulating like a snowball and bringing us to the modern day where in many Western cultures it now lies all but forgotten.

Being of Russian origin and spending my summers in Estonia as a child, I was lucky to have my parents and grandparents take me out on endless foraging trips and show me the tricks of the trade. Foraging is a warmly embraced pastime in Russia, the Baltic countries and Scandinavia. Many berries such as blueberries and gooseberries are collected by the bucket, transformed into jams and preserves and stocked up for the winter. Foraging is seasonal, but beyond the seasons it is vital to have an understanding of weather conditions that are sympathetic to the growth of the ‘goodies’, this way happy foragers can avoid the disappointment of a wasted trip. Knowing your area too is crucial, for some mushrooms will grow in pine forests, others in temperate forests and then only near certain trees; gooseberries prefer marshland and sorrel can grow near the beach. It is important to respect nature and everything that is foraged in order to make sure that the reserves are not depleted, that the plant and fungi will grow in the years to come and where possible help the edible matter to flourish and multiply. All thisis passed down as ancestral knowledge, it is learnt through practice and not through books as otherwise disasters like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall fans irresponsibly trampling plants, food poisoning or even death are unavoidable.

Foraging disasters have happened with every generation in all countries alike, I am sure. August to September in Russia bears an atmosphere filled with drama and caution as TV and radio stations run was seem to be uninterrupted messages that caution foragers to be careful and steer clear of accidentally gathering Death Caps for consumption. Sadly despite the abundant warnings the foraging related death toll climbs, sometimes skyrockets. Late summer/early Autumn is the beginning of the mushroom season! The most common mushroom found in Western Russia –Russula [1] – is also striking similar to one of the deadliest – theDeath Cap mushroom [2]. Although telling the difference between them is not at all difficult if you know what you are looking for, many clearly do not know how, are unaware of the risks, take them willingly or are simply too hungry.

Self-sustainability can clearly be both dangerous and hard work. Many edible plants grow wild in Britain, even in the parks and inner city woodlands, yet few recognise these plants or are aware that they are edible. Knowing that nettles can be used to make tea and soup or that dandelion flowers and leaves are great marinated in salads does not always mean that those possessing the knowledge will actively go out seeking them. There is undoubtedly a certain ‘trend’ factor that is associated with foraging today, but I fear for many it is just an alternative pastime, something to do on a weekend as an alternative day out in the country, post on Facebook to tell their friends and quickly forget about what they have learnt, returning to purchasing dandelion leaves in a mixed salad bag from one of the London Farmer’s Markets, while those who could benefit from free food often do not have access to the knowledge that would enable them to forage. Travelling around London in the past months I have frequently come across the advertisement “Don’t cook, just eat!” and I wonder if there is any space left for retaining connections to ancestral knowledge of food gathering and preparing.

What is (self) sustainability and is it achievable in today’s world given that most goods are assessed according to their monetary value while goods exchanges are becoming less frequent? In terms of ecological sustainability, food production poses the greatest threat to our environment. Agriculture is one of the largest contributors to global warming. Its greenhouse gas emission, predominantly methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide,  exceed those emitted by all forms of transport combined [3]. Furthermore, the need for food production drives the cutting down of rain forests and depletion of other natural resources, excessive use of water and accelerating loss of biodiversity. A third of all crop grown is used to feed cattle not humans [4], and regulations in many areas have been put in place forbidding the feeding of human waste to animals maintaining the demand for cattle feed such as soy and corn at high levels. By 2015 we will need to double our crop production to meet growing global demand driven by population growth and by the increase of prosperity worldwide which drives the demand for meat, eggs and dairy [4]. In “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World” Jonathan Foley suggests that using a combination of conventional agriculture and organic farming could help reduce the strain agriculture poses on our environment. Foley’s five steps are: 1) freezing agricultures footprint – stopping expansion, preserving our eco system and focusing on primarily feeding people not cattle. 2) Increasing yields – here Foley proposes that conventional farming can be used in areas where yields have previously been low but can be increased with improved farming practices. 3) Efficient use of resources – improving application of fertilisers and pesticides and also looking to organic farming for ways of reducing the use of water and chemicals. 4) Making changes in our diets – acknowledging that those who have recently prospered will be unlikely to give up their newly acquired privilege to consume meat, Foley proposes that a switch from grain fed beef to pasture raised animals or chicken could free up land used to produce cattle feed. Using less food crop for biofuels would also increase food availability. Shifting diets from meet to fish would be more calorie efficient in terms of production: “different sources of animal protein in our diet place different demands on natural resources. One measure of this is the “feed conversion ratio”: an estimate of the feed required to gain one pound of body mass. By this measure, farming salmon is about seven times more efficient than raising beef.” [1] The fifth step, and perhaps the most important, as this can be tackled on a global level as well on a personal one, is waste reduction. It is estimated that quarter of the world’s food calories are wasted or lost before they are even consumed. The loss and waste occurs due to poor storage, bad transpiration as well as supermarkets and restaurants wasting food products by deeming them inadequate for serving or selling.

Businesses, initiatives and online platforms such as The Pig Idea that actively tackles waste production and runs events such as feeding 5,000 people for free on pigs reared on human waste on an inner-city farm [4], and The British Food Swap – a free online community for groups or individuals to swap their excess home grown/reared and homemade produce for things they need with local people, are current drivers of the future [6], attempting to minimise our impact on the environment and re-introducing resourcefulness and waste management. The British Food Swap provides a platform for exchanges that can be made between single herb planters, farm owners, avid jam makers or other producers large or small. If going out foraging during lunch break or in the evenings after work may be a step too far, waste management and the exchange of surplus goods for necessary items with neighbours and the local community surely is not.


[1] Russula – Wikipedia entry. [accessed on: 3  May 2014]

[2] Death Cap – Wikipedia entry. [accessed on: 3  May 2014]

[3] Foley, Jonathan. 2014. A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World. National Geographic Magazine – May 2014

[4] The Pig Idea. [accessed on: 10 March 2014, 2 May 2014]

[5] Christ, Costas. 2014 Sustainable Delicious: Maine Lobster. National Geographic Traveler [accessed on: 13 May 2014]

[6] The British Produce Swap. [accessed on: 3 May 2014]

[7] The Future of Food. [accessed on: 2,3  May 2014]

[8]  Bourne, Joel K., Jr. Aquaculture – How to Farm a Better Fish. [accessed on: 10 May 2014]


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