A Wild Solution to Hunger: Farming Native Plants

When crops fail, subsistence farmers turn to what grows beyond their fields’ edges. So why not grow those plants too?

A woman forages in Dak Lak province, Vietnam. (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT/Flickr)

Oct 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

In its simplest form, a balanced meal is one with a lot of different colors on the plate. Green vegetables, colorful fruits, brown proteins, and white carbohydrates are just a few examples. Yet not all of us pick out our food from a rainbow of produce at the grocery store.

For subsistence farmers, who grow food primarily to feed their families, what they grow is what they eat. And often, it is not enough. “Most of the chronically food insecure and undernourished populations are smallholder farmers” who grow food on less than five acres, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. While smallholder farms can make a profit in good years, their owners often operate on the border of subsistence farming and hunger.

Could the answer to this problem literally be growing in their backyards? In sub-Saharan Africa, 46 percent of the per-capita dietary energy supply “came from a combination of cereals, other grain, and legumes,” reported a recent study in Food Research International. When these crops fail to produce enough food, farmers often turn to indigenous fruit-bearing trees and other wild plants to fill the gap. But instead of seeing indigenous plants as a fail-safe, perhaps the farmers should start cultivating them instead: The study’s authors found that there are 447 varieties of edible trees in sub-Saharan Africa, compared with 10 oilseeds, beans, or grains that “dominate 80 percent of the global field crops.” The indigenous plants bear fruit throughout the year, are well adapted to the local climate, and are more tolerant of drought, pests, and even fire.

This phenomenon is not limited to Africa. The FAO found similar results in a report focused on Asia and the Pacific. “Indigenous foods, neglected and derided by many in the agriculture and food industries, as well as by urban consumers, can be an important component in alleviating hunger, malnutrition and protecting the environment,” they concluded. Not only are these plants more numerous, diverse, and reliable than conventional crops, but they are also filled with the same micronutrients that many subsistence farmers and rural poor lack. In many instances, the nutrient content of indigenous plants is much higher than that of domesticated crops, according to the FAO report.

So why aren’t people adopting them already? Globally, they are. “Over a billion people still rely on wild vegetables for food,” a study looking at wild vegetables in the South African diet found. Yet, this may be done more often out of need than as a deliberate part of people’s diet. In many cultures, wild edible plants are frowned upon. Not only have many diets been Westernized—moving away from traditional foods—but many people believe wild plants are “poverty foods.” Unfortunately, the longer communities go without eating these foods, the more local knowledge of how to find, prepare, and preserve them is lost.

As more farmers have turned toward conventional crops, the study’s authors found, wild plants have been seen as weeds that should be removed from agricultural land. And, on occasion, wild edibles can and do host pests that attack conventional crops. But what’s solidified wild edibles’ reputation as weeds is that they are so well suited to the natural environment and “emerge on an annual basis without any efforts to cultivate them”—attributes that could make them very reliable food crops too.

Though these plants may be of particular benefit for those with serious nutritional deficiencies, every country should be cultivating them and adding wild edibles to their diet. Throughout human history, only about half of known edible plants have been used for food and fodder. Today, “less than 2 percent of these are recognized as economically relevant,” the FAO found. A full 90 percent of all plant-derived foods come from just 20 crops.

Wild vegetables may have gained a certain cachet in developed countries as restaurants such as Noma popularized the practice of foraging. But foraged foods are not found in most grocery stores, and the majority of home gardens simply plant familiar species—tomatoes, lettuce, squash. Supporting biodiversity may not be what most eaters think of when planning a meal, but exploring indigenous edible plants is a practice that can benefit people of any economic level.