My opposition to wild edible CSAs

I recently learned about some rural foragers in New England who are collecting a CSA comprised of wild plants and mushrooms and selling it to wealthy people from a city. If you have bought one of these CSA shares, let me be clear that I’m supportive of your desire to eat wild edibles, but I hope that you will find inspiration to become an active forager, rather than a passive consumer. I’ll explain why I’m so strongly opinionated on this issue.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and the premise is that the customer pays a lump sum of money before a growth season, so that a farmer (or forager in this case) can procure food for the customer for a certain length of time. I am very supportive of CSAs in agriculture, and I have been an owner of a CSA share for many years. But, in the case of wild edibles, I have several ethical oppositions to the concept based on my philosophy around conservation, environmental education, and class.

First, as someone with an ecological economics background, I take issue with the commodification of nature. Wild plants and mushrooms play a critically important role in our local ecosystems. When we, as a society, begin buying and selling these life forms, we have to ensure sustainable harvest or else we threaten ecosystem health. Most dominant contemporary economic systems do not ensure sustainable harvest of natural resources because the free market does not account for the full costs of harvesting those resources. For example, if we harvest all the beech trees in our region, transform them into boards and sell those boards to lumber yards, it is unlikely that the price of the boards reflect all of the costs this transaction has to society. For example, the cost does not account for the full ecosystem service the trees provide in terms of creating oxygen for us to breathe, sequestering the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to keep our climate stable, offering shade to diverse species of wild life that we rely on for a balanced ecosystem, or holding river banks in place to prevent erosion. All of these services have some sort of monetary value to us as humans, because in the absence of all the beech trees we would either have to forego the ecosystem service benefits they provide or pay money to replace those ecosystem services with an alternative, such as planting a replacement tree or building machines that can play a similar role that the tree played. In 1998, Costanza et al. published a paper in Nature estimating the total value of the world’s ecosystem services to be $33 trillion U.S. dollars a year. This was more than the global GNP at the time, which was only $18 trillion. GNP can be thought of as the total value of market transactions in a given year.

Most economic transactions for natural resources do not include the full cost of all the foregone benefits to society that are lost by consuming that resource. Moreover, the benefits of liquidating a natural resource are mostly confined to the individual buyer and seller and their immediate relations, whereas the benefits of leaving natural resources intact are available to all of society. Economists call external costs or benefits externalities. By “external,” they mean external to the market transaction between buyer and seller.

Therefore, when natural resources are bought and sold, I believe society has to take special care to make sure the resources are not overharvested and that the stock of resources remains strong and capable of thriving into the future. Since most current markets for natural resources do not reflect the full costs of resources to society, other mechanisms are necessary to ensure sustainable harvest levels such as regulations outlining caps on harvests or non-market economic incentives for harvesting sustainably.

Once a natural resource, like a wild edible plant, starts being bought and sold, consumer demand for that item manifests, and suddenly the plant is no longer just a role player in an ecosystem, but also an economic commodity. I call this process “commodification,” and as soon as it occurs, the fate of the item starts being determined by market forces rather than natural forces.

Moreover, some things can’t sensibly be priced. For example, what’s the value of a completely intact ecosystem versus one tree? The ecosystem ensures the survival of human kind, whereas one tree has a smaller role to play in that larger framework. Thus, the complete ecosystem probably has an infinite value to humankind, while the tree has a finite value of X amount of dollars. At what point does the harvest of one more tree result in the breakdown of the whole ecosystem?

My opposition to wild edible CSAs is, first and foremost, an opposition to commodifying nature. Although the forager running a CSA may be able to gauge a sustainable harvest level, he or she is treating the plants and mushrooms like commodities, which are unlikely to be priced at their full value to society on the grocery market. The process is probably going to train consumers that wild plants can be bought and sold just as easily as mass produced grocery store corn or any other item in a store. The psychological and economic implications of this trouble me. As a case in point, consider the fetishizing of various natural wonders and wild animals that have led to the creation of environmentally harmful tourist trap towns or subdivisions that are often named after the wild treasure they destroyed.

I also fear that commidfying wild edibles could spike consumer demand so high that the forager may begin to compromise morals of sustainability and harvest too much. Even if the original forager doesn’t overharvest, what’s to stop other foragers from starting their own CSAs to meet increased consumer demand. Standard microeconomics suggests that an increase in consumer demand shifts the demand curve upwards, where it will cross the supply curve at a higher price point and a higher quantity of production.

One could argue that those of us who author wild edible guides are also spurring demand for these items, and I will openly admit that there is a danger in writing these guides. However, my primary motivation for writing this guide is to help people develop a personal relationship with their local ecosystems, a relationship that will hopefully result in them becoming stewards of the plants and mushrooms that they enjoy eating. This brings me to my second opposition to the CSA model.

I view the provision of a wild edible CSA to someone as a reflection of a disconnect between that person and nature. If the buyer of the CSA is simply sampling the food one time and is viewing the opportunity as a means to an end, where the end is foraging, then I believe the CSA could have a positive impact. However, I suspect that most buyers of CSAs are purchasing the plants and mushrooms because they do not want to go out in the woods themselves and procure these items. This is cheap in my opinion. We live in a society where most people cannot even name five wild plants. We need to get these people into nature, so that they can develop a meaningful relationship with nature. Serving them wild plants on a plate like you would a meal of steak and potatoes is like giving a kid an A on her test when you know she didn’t read the textbook or attend a single class. Not only do I dislike this because it seems lazy to me, but we, as foragers, are missing a golden opportunity to engage these potential stewards in other ways that require more effort and may lead to a life of stewardship.

Finally, a wild edible CSA seems like a way to train people that the most sacred gems in nature can be easily acquired as long as you have enough money. For this argument, I am assuming that the majority of the wild edible CSA clientele is fairly well off (in the case of the CSA that prompted my blog post about this, my friends have confirmed that most of these people are very wealthy). I feel safe making the assumption that this holds true for most wild edible CSAs in New England given that most carriers of wild edibles I have seen (primarily CO-OPs) have a much higher percentage of wealthy patrons than the average grocery store—wild edibles are very expensive compared to other forms of food and the vast majority of them seem to be sold in these types of venues. If this is true, then those who are not willing to spend the time or effort to learn plants themselves or engage with nature still have the privilege of enjoying nature’s fruits. Conversely, an impoverished man or woman who works overnight at a factory and sleeps during the day does not have the privilege of enjoying nature’s fruits simply because he or she cannot afford to pay for them and does not have the occupational flexibility to spend time in the woods during daylight. This does not seem fair to me.

If you have participated in a wild edible CSA, please use that privilege as inspiration to become an active forager, and while doing so, please learn to respect the health of the ecosystem. I challenge you all to become stewards of the beautiful and delicious wild foods that surround us. Besides, wild edibles are much more meaningful to eat if you harvest them yourself. I guarantee that the thrill of hunting for your own wild plants and mushrooms will be well worth the time and effort. The rewards are much greater than what ends up on your plate.