Wild Foods

Introduction to Wild Foods

Tropical rainforest near Cairns, QLD.

What can we learn from the World’s longest living culture?

Can you remember the foods and their distribution, seasonality and preparation that your great grand-parents ate?

Do you know the wild medicines that can be sourced for headache, toothache, ear infections, burns, cuts and scrapes, insect bites, snake bites, serious wounds or injuries that will not stop bleeding or infections that just will not heal and ulcerate, stomach upsets, constipation, sprained joints … the list goes on?

It is the fact that Indigenous Australians could remember encyclopedic volumes  of cross-generational information that suggests we miss out on an intellectual capacity only possible because of the quality of their nutrition.

In Wild Foods, I also address our mis-management of the environment; the consequences of falling biodiversity of resource; the challenge of global warming; and how we might feed ourselves in years to come.

I hope that you come on this journey with me and interact through the blogs on this site. I’ll answer any questions you might have or address points you make. The themes I bring together along with my co-authors in later sections, are games in play and if we choose to find solutions then there is every hope that non-indigenous Australians and people of other cultures who are recent immigrants to their lands, might survive somewhere near the 60,000 years of the world record holders to date.

Thanks for visiting this website and if you have a copy of my book, thank you for that investment of time and money too. I do hope that the community we might build can embrace some of the disruptive concepts in the book and together we get to change the world, improve our nutrition and create some waves with the politicians, drug peddlers, amoral corporations and other criminals who have moved us towards the brink of our extinction for their own personal gain or that of their associates or shareholders.

Wild Foods

Wild Foods, Wild Humans and Wild Ways

Lemon myrtle plantation
Wild Foods

Food, Now and Then

Santalum acuminatum or quandong has the second highest antioxidant capacity of the fruits analysed thus far. The quandong growing industry struggles to be profitable. However, secondary products from the seeds may shift the balance in time.

Like everything, food evolves. Wild species continue to evolve following rules discovered and described by Charles Darwin and do so from pressures of change exerted by the environment, predator species, food supplies as well as from human activity including climate change and so on.

Humans as a species no longer evolve with environmental or genetic pressure but indirectly as a consequence of language, schooling, culture and technology. Our faulty genes persist in the genome rather than breeding out via fatal extraction and medical support can extend the lives of those who would have perished in less medically advanced times. We might do well to also recognize that modern humans are the last species of the genus, Homo that are left on the planet so what we do to our food supply and to the planet has an elevated significance to our continued survival.

There can be no doubt of our adaptiveness, as we have exploded in number, occupied every inhabitable niche (and some less than hospitable) and have displaced thousands of other species in our uncontrolled expansion over the planet as the super-top-carnivore.

But when it comes to our modern food species, our fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs and spices, domesticated meats and a handful of other edibles (eg honey, plant exudates etc) we find an alarming situation exists. Many are being forced to adapt to our requirements and these generally have little to do with our ideal nutrition.

Here is an article on Is Something Wrong with Our Modern Diet as it appeared in the NY Times.

Our food staples are industrially farmed and as described in Wild Foods, most of our calories comes from a single crop – sugar. Way behind come wheat, rice, maize and a half a dozen other starchy carbohydrates. However, many people in developing countries supplement their diet with their local wild foods which provide a substantial level of nutrition for them.

Associate Professor Jules Pretty from Essex University in the UK has this informative summary as an abstract to one of his published articles:

Almost every ecosystem has been amended so that plants and animals can be used as food, fibre, fodder, medicines, traps and weapons. Historically, wild plants and animals were sole dietary components for hunter–gatherer and forager cultures. Today, they remain key to many agricultural communities.

The mean use of wild foods by agricultural and forager communities in 22 countries of Asia and Africa (36 studies) is 90–100 species per location. Aggregate country estimates can reach 300–800 species (e.g. India, Ethiopia, Kenya). The mean use of wild species is 120 per community for indigenous communities in both industrialized and developing countries.

Many of these wild foods are actively managed, suggesting there is a false dichotomy around ideas of the agricultural and the wild: hunter–gatherers and foragers farm and manage their environments, and cultivators use many wild plants and animals. Yet, provision of and access to these sources of food may be declining as natural habitats come under increasing pressure from development, conservation-exclusions and agricultural expansion.

Despite their value, wild foods are excluded from official statistics on economic values of natural resources. It is clear that wild plants and animals continue to form a significant proportion of the global food basket, and while a variety of social and ecological drivers are acting to reduce wild food use, their importance may be set to grow as pressures on agricultural productivity increase.

It is interesting to compare the above numbers with the traditional use of wild foods by the various Indigenous Australian clans (600 different Nations). The numbers ranged from 150 different wild foods annually available in the Western desert up to around 700 foods in the wet tropics of the north.

And what AP Pretty does not address is the vastly superior nutritional value of wild foods over conventional agricultural produce.

Wild Foods

It’s more than just what we eat

Diploglottis campbellii or small leaved tamarind has a super-sour fruit but refreshing to eat once you get used to the tartness. They make an exceptional sweetened syrup and ice cream.

In chapter 3, It’s More Than Just What We Eat, I cover the many Diseases of Nutrition that appear to be conditions that we would presume have bad luck or bad genes as their causes. Instead, evidence is mounting that our food choices influence the probability of suffering from these illnesses or not.

Modern Diseases of Nutrition (a short list)
• Obesity
• Type 2 diabetes
• Cardiovascular disease
• Hypertension
• Gout and other form of arthritis
• Atherosclerosis
• Obstructive pulmonary disease
• Emphysema
• Chronic liver disease or cirrhosis
• Nephritis or chronic renal failure
• Stroke
• Prostate problems and urinary tract infections
• depression
• senile dementia
• Alzheimer’s disease
• insomnia
• Chronic fatigue
• Osteoporosis and menopausal symptoms
• Macular degeneration
• Dental caries, gum disease
• Loss of hearing
• Autoimmune diseases
• Food intolerances, allergies
• Acne and asthma
• Eczema and psoriasis
• And probably most forms of cancer

This chapter also includes the growing problem of metaflammation which is a low grade, persistent form of induced metabolic inflammation that may not involve the immune system as completely as allergenic inflammation. In fact, if we do not change our lifestyle, we may never recover from it.

And it is not always simply the nature of the foods agricultural scientists have bred from early selections of edible species. Sure, they have taken small, often sour and high fibre fruits loaded with nutrients which made them superfoods in every sense of the word. Through careful selection and gene manipulation initially using the time-consuming process of choosing outliers or random variants in forms of the natural foods or more recently using chemicals, radiation and other means to force mutations in the hope of producing bigger, sweeter, juicier fruits and starchy, grotesquely large vegetables or even unique forms that can be patented and protected for a higher financial reward for the patent holder.

I discuss the ramifications of these processes and the modern use of recombinant DNA (natural or synthetic DNA strands molecular-cloned into target species) and the use of micro-organisms and viruses as host organisms for creating GMO ‘foods’. These new ‘foods’ are becoming a problem in that some countries are even ignoring the sense of giving consumers a choice of eating GMO products or not in that they are not always labelled or need to be labelled by law.

But there is more in our food than we pay for and most is not something we might choose to eat. In the USA, irresponsible companies produce agro-chemicals and bribe their way into the market through political pressure aided and abetted by organizations such as the FDA, EPA and the USDA. Glyphosate is one chemical I address but take a simple product such as cows milk and examine the practices of the US dairy industry. It is enough to drive you to organic milk (or even away from drinking the calf food completely if you read Professor T. Colin Campbell’s work, The China Study).

While this study has lost some of it’s credibility due to the poor data analyses and the conclusions made by the authors in support of their vegan convictions, there is growing research showing that at least one cancer, that of the prostate, is indeed made worse by casein in the diet.

The use of synthetic growth hormones in dairy cattle can boost milk production by 10% but also produces milk loaded with this synthetic growth stimulant. The toxic effects of the chemical in the milkers number over 20 different possible side effects with mastitis being very common. This results in pus secretions into the milk and treatment with antibiotics is taking us down the path of infectious organisms becoming resistant to most antibiotics as they transform to super-bugs. The up-side is that world population growth might be slowed as we lose our medical defense system against infections and more people die. It’s bad luck if you are one of them but at least the agro-chemical companies may have contributed to your retirement income if your superannuation or IRA fund invested your money in these evil but profitable companies.

Wild Foods

Are Wild Foods THAT much better for us?

Microlena stipoides or Alpine meadow rice with ripening seeds

Wild foods – ideal superfoods for modern times

This is a short chapter in the book but it does get pretty technical and I deep dive into the biochemistry of nutrition and nutritional data.

However, the short answer to the question in the title is yes. By far.

And the more we look, the better we find them.

It might be obvious to us too, that as we embrace more farmed and processed foods, the worse our health becomes and the reasons are all in my book – from the challenges of our taste drives to the falling nutritional value of modern foods to lifestyle considerations. But the superior values of wild foods in quantity and quality are spectacular.

In summary, Indigenous Australians had from 2 to 10 times the number foods as the basis of their nutrition by comparison to us in the developed world. The range was determined by geography with the low end being in the deserts and the most foods available in the wet tropics of the North.

Additionally, these foods were from 6 to 50 times more nutritionally potent than our modern foods, when comparing any specific functional ingredient. If we had a single way of assessing antioxidant capacity, we could provide figures on the antioxidant capacity but in general terms, wild foods are staggeringly better for us that whatever we farm.

There are even some classes of antioxidants (for example, the fat soluble ones) that are entirely missing from conventional fruits yet are significant in wild foods.

Additionally, fructose and sucrose, or bad sugars are notably low in wild foods and even wild honey (sugarbag) from the tiny, stingless native bees is super-healthy in that the good sugars come in an amino acid cocktail along with enzymes, tannins, waxes and resins that give sugarbag its characteristic bitter-sweet profiles.

Store-bought honey is little more than a sugar hit and mainly bad sugars although if the honey is local and not imported (and therefore heated at 60°C for 24 hours to guard against chalk brood and other Italian bee diseases) you might find some enzymes and amino acids if the bees get to harvest bushland flowers and not just urban ornamental plants and other weeds.

Modern agriculture – hydroponics in the ground

The problem I explain in the book is that as we work to boost yields from plantations of food plants in order to reach what are economic levels from farmland, we need to move closer to what is effectively, hydroponics in the ground. This system of growing is familiar to anyone who has bought those root-bound punnets of salad greens and herbs and uses PVC pipes with holes for the punnets of vermiculite or other soil substitute into which the greens are sown. The pipes then get nutrient water circulated as the plants are fed whatever nutrients we think they need. The upshot is foods that are little more than ‘standing-up-water’. Salad greens with next to no nutritional value as foods but enough leaf to stop the watery tomatoes we slice onto our sandwiches from soaking the white slice bread. Herbs still manage to pump out enough aromatic ingredients to make them useful as flavour garnishes but again, the nutritional value is greatly diminished from the wild types of these herbs. The major reason for this is that to get the plants to grow fast and bushy, they are pumped with fertilizers and watered to produce the equivalent of our large, watery orbs of fruits and veg. Sure, there are some aromatics retained in the herbs but have you noticed how quickly they wilt and compared to the wild herbs from which they were bred, they are a shadow of their former selves.

Cropping of most of our vegetables is like this. Seeds are planted in paddocks that have been rendered microbially sterile with farm chemicals such as glyphosate and watered with regimes to pump up the plant’s size over growing seasons fueled by boosted nitrogen, potassium, urea and other fertilizer components. The huge watery blisters bear passing resemblance to the wild ancestors of these ‘new vegetables’ and their nutritional value is just as scant.

Farmers now grow wheat selections based on what is called a semi-dwarf variety developed in the USA. The reason for this is that as sterile soils are depleted of minerals, even silica is found lacking. Silica in micro-fine form is bound to flavonoids by plants and is a structural element in plants and our own cells, our hair, skin, nails and bones. The uptake of silica and subsequent bio-activation by plants is probably mediated by the micro-organisms killed by glyphosate.

Anyway. Semi-dwarf wheat with its shorter stalks, is less affected by the lack of silica in the wheat stalks as the heads of grain do not have to be held up as high as with normal wheat. Farmers get a crop but we are cheated with low silica grain. Luckily, we do get some silica from other sources of plants that are grown under more natural conditions.

Another reason to choose wild or near-wild food plants.

Wild Foods as World Record Holding Superfoods

The nutritional work I conducted in the 1980s and more by other researchers since then reveals some impressive facts: If we consider just a few of the antioxidants or the sum total antioxidant capacity of the three dozen or so species commercialized thus far, we find that the antioxidant values are from 6 to 50 times higher in wild foods than in conventional foods that are generally considered to be good sources of antioxidants. Blueberries are often used as a comparative food. Read more about this choice in the book as even blueberries are better for us if they are wild harvested and not cultivated.

And the Winner Is …

The front runner in terms of vitamin C capacity is still the Kakadu plum also known as the Kalari plum. These small, olive-sized, mucilaginous and fibre-filled fruits (drupes) can have over 50 times the ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content as the same weight of an orange of 40 years ago (when they actually had vitamin C). It has been estimated that 15% of the antioxidant capacity as measured by the ORAC assay comes from the vitamin C content and the remaining activity is due to other compounds. Additionally, the ORAC test accounts for not more than 27% of the total antioxidant capacity and other tests including the FRAP, TEAC, Folin–Ciocalteau and other methods. What this all means is that the 3 to 5% vitamin C level we published back in 1983 would suggest that the antioxidant capacity is huge.

A multitude of research publications over the last 10 years verify this massive value of a wide range of wild foods and the recommendation is simple – we need to eat more of them.

If you want an easy and convenient way to do this apart from foraging or sourcing near-wild foods, please visit this page on L.I.F.E. (Lyophilized Indigenous Food Essentials)™ and try it out for yourself.

Wild Foods

How We Relate to Country

Ficus coronata fruits on the branches too. These figs are rarely mealy or seedy and this is an excellent forage food which lends itself to commercialization.

This chapter is titled An Evolutionary Paradigm of our Relationship to Land and evidence of the paucity of modern human ‘management’ of our natural resources does not bode well for the future. The idiot politicians (sorry for the tautology) in the Australian State of Queensland have just approved a huge coal mining project which will wipe out a vast area of bushland reducing biodiversity at a time we can ill afford to do so. It will also threaten the Great Barrier Reef in several ways. The first is through global warming as the coal is burned and CO2 released adding to the cataclysmic effects of climate change. The second is that a coal loader is planned for a location on the Great Barrier Reef and loss of this habitat should be of concern to the whole world.

Then there is the foolish Premier of NSW who is similarly a short-term thinker and puppet of the mining and development industries. Land clearing in Northern NSW and Qld is at an all-time high resulting in catastrophic loss of biodiversity and healthy eco-systems. It must be time that these cretins are held personally responsible for their ill-informed decisions and long term damage they produce. Instead, we keep paying for their stupidity in both environmental terms and financially with their overly generous pensions and allowances even after they leave public ‘service’ and move on to their cushy consultancies and industry-supported employment deals.

But these politically driven disasters reflect the way economic goals permit environmental mis-management which then threatens our long term survival. We seem to be heading to those Sci-Fi images of society as a war of humans vs machine in a vast battlefield of destruction with no remaining natural areas to soothe the senses and keep us in touch with our roots. If only Mother Nature was our global God rather than the numerous imaginary figureheads of world religions that put males representing minority social groups in leadership roles.

I realise that I might be alienating some of my visitors but if you have even reached this far into my website, then I suspect that you are a free-thinking, intelligent individual who can take my opinion and see how or if it fits your own paradigms.

The thing that impresses me most about Indigenous Australian culture (and other enduring, similar cultures) is that they recognized the carrying capacity of their Country and maximized their food and medicine resources in a way to enjoy the benefits of a wide range of wild foods and functional plants. They selected trees or cultivars of preferred phenotypes (genetically determined physical attributes) that occurred naturally and even claimed familial ownership of these selected plants. They honoured their resources as gifts from their ancestors or their ancestral deeds which they linked to these desirable gifts and they imposed totemic rules of management tying humans to nature and the responsibility of their on-going survival.

This is not to say that Aborigines were ‘noble savages’ or noble anything. The cruelty of some aspects of necessity cannot be over-looked even without my delving into the gory details. But we do have much to learn from this enduring culture in terms of appreciating, respecting and honouring resources that are not modified by humans.

Whether the yields from wild food species in managed plantation systems would be enough to sustain a more reasonable human population than that which we have now or a greater one towards which we are headed before sense prevails, is unlikely. However, the short term solution, at least for some of us, is that should we be able to sustainably harvest or grow in appropriate systems sufficient wild foods and minimally genetically modified foods, we can use these to supplement our modern diets to address many of the diseases of nutrition.

In the 1980’s, I explored and described a system of wild food agriculture I called Bushland Polyculture. It relied upon recognizing which wild foods in a bushland setting were target species and then identifying how to boost their yields through simple reduction from competition or by using intermittent irrigation. The intention was to encourage production in the characteristic off-years while still allowing for fallow years in mosaic patterns. This recognized that wild plants rarely produce fruits every year due to the paucity of our soils and some produce light harvests every second or third year with bumper production in between. Other species might set fruit after soaking rains or fire. If these differences are well managed, wild food production can be raised to levels matching those of traditional land management methods.

Wild Foods

12 Tastes in Food

Austromyrtus dulcis or midyim. An excellent eating quality berry produced in heavy crops in late summer. early autumn. The flavour is apple-blueberry-like with a hint of ginger and cinnamon. Definitely superior to most commercial blueberries, raspberries.

Having stood in front of thousands of chefs over the years and asking what are the basic flavours in food, I am struck by the different focus that traditional culinary education has to a scientific approach to cooking. Humans have a natural urge to classify which is why we have first and second names, some have middle names and we can explain where we fit in the network of our immediate and more distant relatives, both living and passed.

Why is it then, that when confronted with a host of ingredients from around the world, we do not attempt to recognize some basic characteristics that fit new foods into our network of familiar ingredients? Instead, chefs need to learn a whole set of rules relating to established cuisines and how food was traditionally prepared, rightly or wrongly. I believe that this difference is why wild foods have struggled to become part of the everyday kitchen and an Australian cuisine is only just starting to emerge after 3 decades of first offering these amazing ingredients to the food industry.

As a scientist rather than a chef, my approach was to look to how we actually taste the flavours in a food and then how these might be applied to a dish where different sources of flavours are combined. I was interested in what made popular dishes irrespective of cultural origin and which tastes, textures, colours and smells made these dishes so accepted.

This chapter addresses these issues so that anyone can learn to create dishes that service our desire for delicious food. Sure, if your palate is dumbed down to only like sweet, salty, fat and stodgy you might have a way to go learning to appreciate more complex and subtle tastes but it can be done. As in business, what we measure gets improved, so in food, hunting flavours gets appreciated.

This chapter also looks at the balance between taste pairs and the different sensitivities that we have for a range of tastes. I do take the liberty of expanding the sense of taste to include the detection of pain, smell and some other non-tastebud experiences from certain ingredients.

Another area of interest to me is how our prehistoric or genetic taste drives rule our behaviours to food. There is a reason that junk foods are popular and why we get fat from letting our unconscious taste drives get to dictate our food intake. There’s even a simple way of changing the less desirable of these instinctive drives by servicing one desire that is not fulfilled because of the quality of our modern foods. I have used this trick to lose over 30kg myself and keep it off for more than 3 years, slowing to a regular loss of a kg or so each year as I drift towards a more healthy body weight. All this without dieting or pretending that I can change what I eat with will power. There is growing evidence that there is no such thing as free will and we tend to choose foods as a result of the chemicals secreted into our bloodstream by the bugs in our gut. If they want more Kentucky Fried for their own nutrition, we have little choice in the first instance. Our best strategy is to change the micro-flora in our gut if we want to get healthy.

I also present evidence in this chapter of the incredible performance enhancement possible through a wild food diet and a particular exercise regime that can be as little as 3 minutes, 3 times a week. There is proof that Indigenous Australians out-performed Olympic record-breaking runners and they did it as a matter of course while out on a hunt. Learn how from this section.

Please give me your feedback in the forums or as a comment below.

Wild Foods

A Wild Food Menu

Acacia coriacea seeds in pods

Traditional Aboriginal diets, their quality, diversity and supply, coupled with other lifestyle factors such as exercise, sleep and stress (or a lack of it), are an example of wholistic cures to the diseases of nutrition. And note that these same conditions were once called diseases of civilization, a term which was inappropriate to the world’s longest living civilization and which was devoid of these diseases.

I firmly believe that our continued survival, not just in Australia but on the planet, depends upon embracing a more wholistic paradigm. The Aboriginal management practices of land, population and resources and the nature of Australia’s wild foods themselves may determine if we continue to thrive as a species or we reach a point of singularity and everything changes. The year 1770 was such a point of singularity for the Tharawal of Botany Bay, followed closely by the Eora in and around Sydney. It would not be long before many lives and livelihoods would change for ever more or end in the process.

However, many wild foods persisted despite the invading British and their land-clearing, river-damming and otherwise environmentally disruptive developments. I highly recommend delving into the world of John D.Lui of Regeneration International. He has said:

“If the intention of human society is to extract, to manufacture, to buy and sell things, then we are still going to have a lot of problems. But when we generate an understanding that the natural ecological functions that create air, water, food and energy are vastly more valuable than anything that has ever been produced or bought and sold, or anything that ever will be produced and bought and sold – this is the point where we turn the corner to a consciousness which is much more sustainable.

When humans work with nature, degraded landscapes can be restored in a matter of years, and economies can be regenerated, putting food security and climate change mitigation within our reach. In order to survive as a species, Liu explains, humanity must shift from commodifying nature to ‘naturalizing’ our economy.”

This chapter looks at the cautions we need to consider when out foraging or if choosing a wild food species to develop into a new mainstream food. I cover microbial threats, natural variation in chemical components in plants (chemovars), foraging pressure and sustainability concerns. If you think about it, the same sort of knowledge is needed if you were to forage freely in a supermarket yet avoid choosing the pet foods, soaps or garden chemicals as ingredients for your meal.

Ian Chivers from Native Seeds has a contribution to this chapter in a piece titled Splendour in the Grass in which he explores the potential future of wild grass seeds as foods.

Perhaps these might be guidelines for the wider naturalizing of our economy.