by GRAIN | 15 Oct 1995

October 1995


Janet Bell

Many years of official agricultural development policies have completely overlooked the importance of food harvested from wild species. This has led, in many cases, to the undermining of food security at local levels and the loss of biological diversity. However, there is still time to act. Science writer Janet Bell went through the excellent material produced by "The Hidden Harvest" project of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and several other sources. She came up with a fascinating account of why the "Hidden Harvest" is important, how it is being undermined, and what should be done to counter current developments.


In the last few years a compelling new argument for the conservation of biodiversity has been creeping to the fore in the agricultural policy arena. The argument is not new to the majority of the world's farmers and rural communities, but it has come as something of a shock to academics and the technical whizzes that created the so-called "Green Revolution" and its more recent incarnation, the Biotech Revolution.

After decades years of focusing on developing a handful of commodity crops and blanketing them across the globe, policy makers and agricultural scientists are being faced with what is to them, a new reality. They are having to recognise that producing bushel upon bushel of rice, wheat and potatoes does not add up to food security. In fact, in many cases, increasing commodity yields has quite the opposite effect -- decreasing food security at the local level and increasing vulnerability.

Recent research has shown that the importance of crop staples in community food supplies has been greatly overestimated. "Partner" species -- a term which refers to wild plants and animals, semi-domesticated and domesticated livestock and crops (other than the staple crops) -- play a critical role in ensuring food and livelihood security for countless families and communities around the world. The drive towards commodity-based agriculture seriously threatens both the food and livelihood security for millions of people.

These partner species are important for achieving nutritional balance in the diet, and are particularly important for ensuring food security for women, children and the poor, who rely heavily on them. In times of stress, such as famine, wild plants literally keep people alive when they would otherwise perish. In addition, many partner species have significant economic value by preventing the need for cash expenditure and providing ready sources of income to cash-poor households. Partner species also have cultural value and less well defined "existence" values associated with wilderness areas and wild resources.

How Many Plants Feed the World?

When Christine and Robert Prescott-Allen asked this question they came up with rather different answers from their peers. Common figures in the scientific literature quote between 7 and 30 crops that provide the vast majority of the world's food supply. The Prescott-Allens put the figure at well over 100. Their study examined FAO food production data for 146 countries and used different methods of analysis than other researchers: using supply instead of production data; examining several indicators rather than a single one; and employing national rather than global data. The limitations of other researchers' methodologies mean that important crops such as taro (Colocasia esculenta), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and olive (Olea europaea) are overlooked. As the Prescott-Allens point out, to conclude that grains like fonio (Digitaria exilis) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) are unimportant, is "to conclude that the people of Guinea, Gambia and Bolivia who rely on them are unimportant".

Their findings suggest that 103 species contribute 90% of the world's plant food supply. This is much higher than previous figures, but is also considered by the Prescott-Allens to be "very much of an underestimate", because of the limitations of the data they had to work with. The FAO data ignores several countries, such as Ethiopia (a global biodiversity hot-spot and centre of origin for a significant number of food plants); the figures mask regional differences within countries; production in home gardens is excluded from the data; and dietary importance is measured only in terms of fat, protein and calorific content, excluding many plants which are valuable in other ways, such as being key sources of vitamins or making staples more palatable.

The Importance of "Wild" foods

The Prescott-Allen study focuses on cultivated crops. But it is not just domesticated plants that have been overlooked. "Wild" resources harvested in agricultural and forested areas are also of crucial importance. An ongoing project entitled "The Hidden Harvest" by researchers at IIED demonstrates clearly that wild resources are important over the whole range of rural livelihood systems, and are not limited to the exclusive preserve of classical "hunting and gathering" societies.

This study also shows that the term "wild" is misleading because it implies the absence of human influence and management. In reality, there is no clear divide between "domesticated" and "wild" species: rather, it is a continuum resulting from co-evolutionary relationships between humans and their environment. Much of "the wild" is shaped by people. Many species that have long been considered to be wild are actually carefully nurtured by people, albeit less intensively than those cultivated in their fields. The unfamiliarity, seeming chaos and haphazard appearance of domestic gardens has led many Western researchers to overlook the rich complexity of these production systems. In the same way, forests and other vegetation that extend from the immediate neighbourhood of settlements have been assumed to be self-regulating "wastelands", rather than productive ecosystems which are the partial product of human design.

Failure to recognise the value of these "wastelands" means that they are either subjected to commercial use, such as industrial plantations, or else high external input agriculture is introduced, displacing more diverse traditional agricultural systems. Either of these fates has grave implications for both people's livelihoods and the maintenance of biological diversity, as will be discussed below.

Complexity Breeds Diversity

Wild foods are incorporated into the livelihood strategies of most rural people -- be they pastoralists, shifting cultivators, continuous croppers or hunter-gatherers. These convenient pigeon holes belie a more complex reality -- that these different livelihood systems often contain many of the same components woven together in different ways. The labels often imply differences in emphasis on the various methods of sustaining livelihoods. For instance, in many pastoral systems, a diet largely based on livestock products is usefully complemented with wild foods, especially grains. In addition, the harvesting of tree products such as gum arabic sometimes form an important part of the pastoral economy.

Within agricultural systems, the greatest diversity of resources is found in multi-layered, complex agroforestry systems and home gardens. But partner species are also important even in seemingly simple monoculture systems, such as the rice paddies that dominate South-East Asia. The irrigation canals that are home to fish, snails, frogs and other animals are important sources of protein and other nutrients for people. Pathways, field edges and erosion gullies often yield useful plants. Even plant pests, such as rodents and weeds, have important nutritional value in certain circumstances. For the Yukpa of Venezuela and Colombia, ants eggs and beetle larvae are a delicacy. They also supplement their diets with grasshoppers, beetles and caterpillars, while the stingless bee provides them with honey and wax. These dietary additions are particularly important as domestic meat is not acceptable to all Yukpa people.

The benefits of wildlife to local livelihoods often go unseen, yet food and income from hunting may be very significant. Contrary to popular belief, much of the hidden harvest of game meat is derived from small animals -- rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, hares, small buck and so on. Agricultural lands may be managed to encourage wildlife. Farmers in Thailand plant particular trees on paddy irrigation ditches to attract lizards, rats and other potential food sources. One of the advantages of wild game over domestic animals is that they sometimes have greater production efficiencies than domestic livestock. For example, a South American rodent called a capybara is 3.5 times more efficient at converting food to meat than cattle.

"Famine" Foods and Food Security

Wild foods are an important component of coping strategies in times of severe food shortage. In the 1973 and 1984-5 Sudanese famines, the Berti of western Sudan survived off wild grass seeds and tree fruits. In Rajasthan in India, 25 famine foods have been described, including grains, fodder species and the desert locust. History demonstrates the danger of reducing access to wild resources during famine times. In Great Britain, the famine caused by the rains of 1314-16 that killed 10-15% of the population was more severe than previous famines because of the reduced availability of wild resources following agricultural expansion. Those resources that did exist were crucial -- even the king ate tree bark.

In less extreme conditions, wild foods still form an essential part of food security. They may be important to tide communities over the "hunger season" that precedes the harvest, and to provide people with the necessary energy to harvest their fields. Famine foods may be difficult to prepare and are often less palatable than other foods, but this is not always the case. When food is short in Bhutan, farmers go into the hills to gather a delectable mix of wild avocados, bamboo shoots, orchids, mushrooms and giant wild yams that grow up to one metre in length.

Partner species are often the food of choice for daily sustenance, not only in leaner times. Partner species may have higher fat, protein, mineral and vitamin contents than cultivated crops. For example, the !Kung people of Southern Africa, who depend exclusively on 'wild' foods have a higher per capita calorie intake than the average in Africa or Asia. The average intake of calories is 2,355 per adult, which is derived from mongongo nuts (58%), meat (30%) and wild vegetable plants (12%). This food is obtained from hunting and gathering 84 plant and 54 animal species over a working week of only 2.3 days at six hours per day. This makes them much more efficient than many farmers or Westerners who devote a much greater share of their working week to grow their food or pay the grocer. Similarly, cutting and processing a sago tree in the Molucca islands in Indonesia provides for the bulk of a family's calorific needs for about three months.

The Hidden Harvest's Price Tag

Increasing attention is being paid to the assessment of the value of partner resources, which is an essential step to redress their neglect in the past. A full valuation of these resources requires accounting for direct use values (for consumption or sale), indirect use values (ecological and environmental functions) and non-use values (cultural, religious and existence values). In practice, only direct use valuation is considered (and this is usually limited to the marketed value of the product), which can be useful in some instances but is often misleading. In Zimbabwe, for instance, villagers ranked a wide range of consumption benefits from a woodland lower than spiritual and ecosystem functions. Respecting and preserving sacred areas is seen as essential for ensuring good rainfall, without which they could not exist.

Putting a price tag on non-use values is extremely difficult, since these are highly subjective. Indirect use values are also difficult to price, because of their complexity. To account for these values requires putting a price on a wild resource as a store-house of genetic diversity, as a habitat for bees and bats which pollinate cultivated crops, and/or for its role in protecting against flooding and regulating local climate. It is important to remember that economic valuation is not simply about making resources financially visible. It also means recognising that some resources cannot be given a price tag, but are still essential. IIED's Hidden Harvest project has outlined a methodology to assess the economic importance of wild resources, which addresses some of the above concerns. The approach combines economic principles and methods with those of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA).

Whose Valuation Counts?

Wild foods have different values for different people. For example, in some societies, men tend to concentrate their work on agricultural plots, whereas there may be associated areas such as field edges, contour ridges and pathways that women value highly and manage intensively. These may be the areas where leafy vegetables, rodents or fruits are found and harvested. The value of these marginal areas may not be recognised by the menfolk. Women are more involved than men in wild resource management, harvesting, processing and sale, which means that they value the resources higher than men. Poor women in Uttar Pradesh in India derive almost half their income from plants found in the commons, compared with middle-class women, for whom this figure is one third, and men, who gain only 13% of their earnings from this source. During the 1984-5 famine in Sudan, female-headed households were better off than those headed by men because they were more knowledgeable in the collection and preparation of wild foods.

Wild resources are more important to the poor than the wealthy. Income derived for the collection and sale of wild resources is particularly important for the rural poor as a source of cash for the purchase of other goods, for education or for emergencies. In Brazil, for example, the sale of kernels from the fruit of the babassu palm supports more than two million people, representing an average of 35% of families' income. In some cases, the collection, home use and sale of wild resources represents a more lucrative option than wage labour or farming. The Huottuja Amerindians in Venezuela net 30% more through the sale of wild palm fruits than they would working as wage labourers.

In addition, the consumption of wild foods and cultivated fruits often saves money by reducing the necessity to buy food. In Thailand, for example, households living far from forests spent three times as much money on food (excluding rice) than those living near the forest. The use of wild resources for fuel, to make household and agricultural implements, for building materials or medicines, also offers an important, low-cost alternative to the cash economy, which may be prohibitive to the poor.

If anyone bothered to ask them, children would also value wild foods highly, as they are the most frequent collectors and consumers of wild fruits. Since children are particularly prone to malnutrition, their foraging activities provide them with essential supplies of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Common property resource areas (where most wild resources are found) are valued much more highly by the poor, who are reliant on them for their livelihoods. It is the poor, therefore, that are most adversely affected by changes in land use and tenure. For example, in India, common property resources provide 14-23% of the rural poor's income, rising to 42-57% in times of drought. Despite this, common property resources have shrunk by a third to a half over the past 30 years, mainly due to privatisation, which has had a disproportionate impact on the poor. As in many other places, the privatisation of land has had many further negative effects in rural India. Crops grown on land converted to private arable land yield poorly, and productivity may be lower than the total returns from harvesting the former common land. Changes have increased inequities with rural societies with disadvantaged groups ending up with reduced access to resources. Changed tenure has resulted in increased environmental pressure on remaining common property resources, resulting in the disintegration of traditional controls over resource use.

The Impact of Agricultural Intensification

It is clear that wild resources are of great importance to communities in a number of ways. This is not reflected, however, in most modern agricultural research and practice. Policy makers, researchers and agribusinessmen remain transfixed by the goal of increasing yields of the main commodity and food crops through the application of external inputs. This approach has had serious implications for people's livelihoods and the maintenance of genetic diversity:

* As cultivated areas expand and traditional agroecosystems are simplified, the availability of wild resources diminishes. In many cases, particularly for the poor, loss of these resources has reduced food security. Dependence on a narrow range of species increases vulnerability to disasters such as pest attack , disease or drought. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Green Revolution or even the 20th century, as Jules Pretty described in his account of the agricultural revolution in 17th-19th century Britain.

* Loss of resource diversity may also mean less available genetic diversity for future agricultural adaptation.

* The promotion and imposition of "improved" varieties of crops has forced many people to abandon their diverse production systems and adopt new technological packages. This has sometimes shifted farming responsibilities from women to men, further disenfranchising women, who usually have the greatest knowledge of production systems, and particularly of the importance of wild resources. Had women had more of a say in the promotion of Green Revolution agriculture technologies, the result might have been quite different. Agroecologist Miguel Altieri often recounts a delightful story of how Chilean women, suspicious of their husbands' enamourment with Green revolution agriculture, hid traditional varieties in their petticoats, planting them surreptitiously amongst the new, uniform varieties their spouses had adopted.

* The untold wealth of indigenous knowledge that creates the rich and complex production systems fast being smothered by the plague of uniformity is disappearing as fast as the forests themselves. This knowledge affords people the adaptability and resourcefulness that is so critical at times of stress, such as drought or crop failure.

* New farming techniques often require farmers to invest more time (and money) into agriculture, which may reduce time for other livelihood activities.

* The increased use of pesticides may kill off "pests" or "weeds" that form an important dietary or economic component of livelihood strategies. Fertiliser inputs increase the vigour and dominance of commodity crops, as well as some pervasive weed species, at the expense of the diversity of partner species at the field edge and growing amongst the main crop. These chemicals also pollute water supplies, which have rebound effects on health, not only of people but on the animals (wild and domesticated) on which they feed, and also on the environment that sustains them.

* Increased dependence on commodity crops, and the inputs these need, makes farmers vulnerable to price fluctuations. A diverse cropping system which includes access to wild resources can provide a buffer against the vagaries of local and international markets.

Where to From Here?

Long-term food security will continue to depend on wild genetic resources. Genes from wild plants and animals have been the sources of agricultural innovation for centuries, and will continue to be so. Much of the genetic diversity on which the future sustainability of agriculture depends is found in and around farmers' fields, in village woodlands and on grazing lands. Wild resources and farmer's varieties are critical to enable plants, animals and humans to adapt to ecological change. They will become more and more important as agriculture spreads further into marginal lands, such as areas of degraded soil, cleared forest areas and upland slopes. Global climate change may also put new pressures on existing crops, requiring their adaptation.

The most effective way of conserving this crucial genetic pool is in situ: in farmers fields, in women's home gardens, in village woodland areas and in protected areas. This is not anything new -- it is what millions of people have been doing quietly, modestly, for centuries. The incorporation of indigenous crops and other native plant germplasm in the design of self-sustaining agroecosystems will ensure the maintenance of diversity. Agricultural research needs to be conducted with the custodians of this living genetic database and the genius that goes with it -- in their fields, gardens and forests. The few progressive initiatives which have married on-farm conservation with ex situ conservation (via locally-sited but more familiar, refrigerated gene banks) show the benefits such an approach can have both for meeting local food production needs and conserving biodiversity for the benefit for the local and international communities.

Protected areas pose a special challenge for the conservation of livelihoods and biodiversity. They have long been considered by many to be the best means of preserving areas rich in biodiversity, and they now cover almost 10% of the earth's surface. Traditionally parks and people have been seen to be in mutual opposition, and a "keep out" policy has been widely adopted. However, it now appears that this has had adverse effects not only on the food security and livelihoods of people living in and around protected areas, but also on the diversity and ecological status of the protected areas themselves. Lack of livelihood security ultimately undermines conservation objectives as poverty and rates of environmental degradation intensify in the land around protected areas.

Open protests have become common in many countries, and it is becoming clear that a new approach is required. If local people were to be made partners in the management of these areas everyone would gain. Their vested interest in maintaining the area would reduce conflict and cost, and their extensive knowledge would be an asset to managing the resources sustainably.

Access and Rights to Wild Resources

There is a global trend towards restricting access to communal lands, where many important wild resources reside. This undermines local peoples' traditional rights to and regulation of wild resource use, and results in unsustainable exploitation. Recent research suggests that reinstating legal access and increasing the economic value of wild resources can promote resource conservation by making sustainable use a viable option.

Experience has shown that for the economic returns from common property resources to reach their users, effective institutions and incentives for management are essential. Indigenous institutions often exist for this purpose. But increased pressure on limited common lands can mean that such institutions are weakened and cannot adapt fast enough to the changing conditions. Promoting effective institutions for wild resource management represents a major challenge for policy makers. Success appears to hinge on several factors, including:

* Small, relatively homogeneous community user groups with common goals

* Visible and well-defined resource areas

* Presence of a resource with high monetary value

* A system of enforceable rules supported by an enabling legal and institutional framework.

There is good evidence to show that almost every part of the globe has been modified or managed humans at some time in history. Human influences have often actively maintained and enhanced biodiversity in forests, wetlands, grasslands, agricultural areas and other areas from which rural people have derived their livelihoods. They have built up detailed knowledge of the uses and properties of wild species, and have experimented with crop breeding and genetic improvement. Yet existing legal frameworks do not acknowledge the innovations, labour and knowledge of rural people which have shaped the wild. Local people's rights to use, access and profit from the genetic resources they have nurtured must be secured for the sake of their own livelihoods, for the conservation of biological diversity and for the sustainable management of our global resources.

This article is largely based on the data and analysis from a recent publication issued by IIED: The Hidden Harvest -- the Value of Wild Resources in Agricultural Systems -- A Summary., written by Irene Guijt, Fiona Hinchcliffe and Mary Melnyk. It is an indepth, fully footnoted and referenced overview of the importance of the Hidden Harvest. For more information, and to obtain a copy, write to the authors at IIED, 3, Endsleigh Street, London, WC1H 0DD, UK. Fax: (44-171-388.2826) E-mail: [email protected]


Other sources:

* Ian Scoones, Mary Melnyk and Jules Pretty, eds. (1992). The Hidden Harvest -- Wild Foods and Agricultural Systems. A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography. IIED, London.

* RAFI (1995). Farmer-Led Food Security -- Community Genius and the Integration of Food, Health, Environment, and Knowledge Security. RAFI, Canada.

* Christine and Robert Prescott-Allen (1990). How Many Plants Feed the World? Conservation Biology, Vol. 4, No.4, pp 365-374. December 1990.

Author: GRAIN
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