I lecture on wild food frequently, discussing various issues that concern this subject to a wide variety of people. For years, the information was received with interest and people appreciated learning about this part of our collective human history and what wild food can mean for human and ecosystem health. In the last year or so, there has been an increasing number of criticisms about the message of wild food. While these arguments center on important social issues, they are representative of a broader narrative that has become very pervasive and sometimes applied to topics that may not be core to the subject of privilege and power. In fact, it has become customary to disparage anyone who does not demonstrate perfect agreement with all arguments against those assumed to be in power—regardless of the intentions and merits of the arguments presented.
Here, I suggest that views linking wild food to power and privilege have, perhaps, been taken too far by those who seek social accountability. The two most frequently raised arguments are as follows.
1. "But Wild Food is Not Abundant Enough to Feed the World."
That’s correct, the world is too populated and the wild places too fragmented to feed the entire world strictly on a wild food diet, even though anatomically modern humans consumed wild food exclusively for ca. 315,000 years (i.e., for over 97 percent of our time on this earth). Despite the fact that agricultural and industrial societies consistently degrade the land base through over-population and poor ecological practices, many believe cultivation and animal husbandry are the only strategies that should be used to feed the world’s population. Let’s discuss this idea a bit further.
I generally answer this concern (regarding the abundance of wild food) by noting that there is also not enough organically raised food to feed the earth’s population; however, no one is suggesting we should stop growing organic produce.
For them, agriculture is our cultural norm—and they always start from this context when discussing food availability (rather than our species’ biological norm—wild food). Because there is not enough undomesticated food does not mean those who can procure it should cease doing so. In fairness, this would mean that some hunter-gatherers would have to stop eating their ancestral diet (though, in general, the indigenous are considered to have rights to local wild foods, but other people living in the same area are not). It would also mean that those of us living in industrialized countries do not get to consume some of the only foods that leave the forests standing, the prairies untilled, and the marshes filled with water. The conscientious gathering of wild foods does not degrade landscapes.
Keep in mind, this argument could be used on a variety of scales. Should those who practice permaculture (a strategy that also cannot feed the entire world) consider ceasing their craft? Likewise, are there enough pumpkins to feed the world? Of course not, but some people still grow these foods and make them available to those who can pay without criticism. It may be important to offer here that there are not enough computers or iPhones for all the world to have one (but we are sure to keep such devices for waging our social concerns).
2. "But Wild Food is a Privilege."
No, it is not. It is a birthright, one (unfortunately) that very few people today get to experience. It is the biologically appropriate diet of Homo sapiens, and without it, people experience a host of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, neurovascular disease, depression, digestive disorders) that were essentially absent in populations who consumed wild food (i.e., in hunter-gatherers). Because only some people can now acquire wild food, as any proportion of their diet, it is considered a social privilege by those who do not fully explore the topic at hand. By assuming wild food is a privilege, it can be regarded as something no one should have access to unless everyone has access to it.
Let’s us use a comparison to understand how this argument (that wild food is a privilege) might not be well-supported. Breast milk is the biologically normal food for a human infant (and, in part, for toddlers and young children). However, for a variety of reasons, many children are not breastfed. Approximately 19% of children (according to the most recent CDC breastfeeding report card) are not breastfed in the United States, and, instead, receive some type of formula through a bottle. Formula feeding has a variety of impacts, including an increased incidence of leukemia in people who received this form of nutrition as an infant (see below). Breastfeeding is sometimes influenced by education level, income bracket, ethnicity, and nutritional status of the mom. For example, poorer moms may need to work soon after birth and are not available to breastfeed their infants or pay for a breast pump, malnourished moms do not always produce adequate milk, and some minority women don’t breastfeed because they believe it creates the image of being poor. These issues mean that breastfeeding could be regarded (by those seeking to create a negative label) as a privilege of the wealthier people of European decent. Now, the manner in which human infants have always been fed can be considered a privilege (i.e., provided a negative label).
Using the breastfeeding example one more time, it can help illustrate an important concept in this entire discussion: historical normalcy. Recently, an article was published with the title of “Breastfed children have slightly lower risk of childhood leukemia”. The study demonstrated a 14–19% decreased risk of pediatric leukemia in breastfed babies. You may have missed how this title distorts the idea that humans have a biological norm. Breastfeeding is how Homo sapiens have always fed their infants (until quite recently). To create the image that breastfeeding has benefit misses the point entirely. It isn’t that breastfeeding has benefit, it is that deviating from our ancestral patterns has detriment. The title should have read “formula-fed children have a slightly higher risk of childhood leukemia”. We should start from the perspective of our biological standard, and then discuss deviations from this. Titles worded like this provide evidence of contemporary humans not understanding the ancestral context and how it relates to our health. Likewise, arguments that consider wild food to be a privilege fail to grasp this is how humans have nourished themselves and their offspring for most of our existence. It is not a privilege to consume wild food—it is the re-establishment of our natural diet.
I understand that many people, for various reasons, cannot consume wild food. I truly wish this were different. However, the way we view many issues is becoming harmful to respectful dialogue. When one group of people experience poor conditions, it doesn’t automatically mean that those who don’t experience those conditions are privileged. It may mean, in some cases, that those who experience poor conditions are simply unfortunate. Are cows who are pasture-fed and consume green plants privileged over those that are captive-raised and eat grain? I would emphatically state “no”, the grass-fed cows are receiving the diet they should experience, and the captive-raised cows are unfortunate. (Note: you may not like the example of cows, but it is quite relevant given that both cows and any human reading this are domesticated.)
I would love to have ostrich eggs to consume regularly, but my landscape doesn’t provide them. Are the residents of the Kalahari Desert privileged because this food source is available to them? Of course not.
People always want to apply negative labels—and many who do represent the world’s one percent (in terms of income and privilege). Further, they constantly suggest blanket strategies to solve the world's issues. However, these rarely succeed in realizing tangible benefits because the lands and people are different. The juxtaposition of locally available foods and the diversity of world views held by the area’s inhabitants means that each region needs to find its own unique solutions to human and ecosystem health.
Suggesting that people follow a diet (of cultivated foods) that harms landscapes and creates chronic illness in such a high proportion of the population isn’t a solution that should be followed by anyone who has a better option, especially when you consider that sick people use more of the world’s resources.
And what about the privilege to purchase cheap food made from crops sprayed with harmful chemicals? These foods have significant external costs and create illness in humans and other-than-human persons who reside near and downstream or downwind of the fields the plants are grown in. Isn’t that a privilege worth discussing (one of no accountability)? I recently met a person who refused to purchase organically raised foods, despite knowing the harm that chemical agriculture causes, because they felt the higher cost associated with these foods represented privilege they did not want to partake in. Using social privilege concerns as a justification to pollute landscapes (when other options were present to the individual) is another example of how slanted this discussion of power has become.
While I do feel this conversation about wild food abundance and social privilege has value, the criticisms waged speak volumes to an attitude that is pervading the entire discussion of privilege and power, overlooking ideals such as personal sovereignty, ecological responsibility, and the need to apply regional solutions. Further, this attitude usually ignores our biological norms. I am not intending, with this writing, to suggest social hierarchy and the consequences of such be ignored. I am meaning to propose that when a conversation becomes more about condemnation than about finding solutions, it loses some of its original values and alienates people who would otherwise be allies.