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Wild plant resources

Strategies for improving nutrition in developing countries have long focused on raising agricultural production and increasing economic opportunities for rural populations, assuming that the desired end would follow automatically. Little, if any, consideration has been given to traditional methods of obtaining and selecting food, yet these may provide high nutritional returns at low cost for many people.

Ignored by planners and policy makers, the gathering of wild food plants is one traditional practice that rural people have come to regard as outdated and unsophisticated - probably precisely because of the planners' neglect. Several studies report a decline in the use of wild food resources in societies where gathering was historically important.

Nevertheless, wild foods, particularly plants, still have an important role in the diets of many agro-pastoral societies. In some societies wild plants are used throughout the year in small quantities in conjunction with cultivated crops; in others they are used seasonally and help cover the period of pre-harvest shortages. In emergencies, such as droughts, they can help prevent starvation, since many wild plants are better adapted than cultivated ones to withstand adverse, climatic conditions. Finally, low-income families can earn money trading wild plants.

" I like them." I took part in a recent investigation of the dietary uses of wild plant foods in rural Swaziland, where exploitation of wild food resources has traditionally been important Swaziland, a small (17 364 sq km) landlocked country in southern, a remarkably diverse flora and four ecological zones with a large climatic variation between them. These are the Highveld, the Middleveld, the Lowveld, and Lubombo. We conducted interviews with 211 households and 140 schoolchildren in all four zones with the aim of finding how well these foods arc recognized and how much they are eaten nowadays. Nearly 40 per cent of the people we asked claimed to consume more wild vegetables and fruits than cultivated ones, and another 18 per cent said they ate both in equal amounts, 'the wild ones", as one respondent explained, 'because I like them, the planted ones because they are there". Thirty per cent said that wild greens were the only accompaniment to the staple diet at certain times of the year, and of this group some said they ate wild vegetables at least once a day.

We collected data on gathering, preparation, taste preference, trading, cultivation, and preservation together with comparable information on domesticated fruits and vegetables. Specimens were gathered for identification and analysis of their nutrient content.

The study illustrates how a stable agricultural population with some cash income but largely dependent on small-scale farming continues to exploit wild food resources - more than 220 species of them. We found that consumption levels varied greatly, but all respondents reported that they ate at least some wild food plants every year (see Table 1). Some of the green leafy vegetables, fruits, and other portions of plants are no less than central components of the diet. Of these, Amaranthus spp., Bidens spp., and Corchorus spp. were reported by at least half the adults interviewed as eaten at least twice a week while they are available (Table 2). Many respondents said that such species fill the same function as cultivated vegetables and fruits: they supply essential nutrients that are often scarce in spring and summer and add variety to the diet. Many liked certain species of wild vegetables much better than the domesticated alternatives or used these favourites together with the cultivated vegetables for variety. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed trade wild plants and another quarter try to cultivate them. Nearly three quarters preserve wild vegetables.

All four regions.

The investigation established that certain species were important in the diets of all the study areas and that all four regions contained food plants specific to them of great value to the local populations. In the Highveld, where the temperate climate delays growth and harvest of domesticated cultivars and early and heavy spring rains lead to the greatest abundance of wild greens, consumptions levels were above average. Wild plants have an important dietary function in the Low veld, too, since crop production there is difficult and yields often are low. While the low rainfall often causes a shorter than average season for wild greens, the higher temperatures make a number of wild fruits available at an earlier stage and allow for a greater variety of fruit-producing trees and shrubs.

The analysis by regions provides an interesting perspective on the effect of land exploitation and population increase on utilization of wild foods. Respondents in the Middleveld, the most densely populated area with the most intensive agriculture, recognized the lowest number of wild foods and abandoned consumption of certain species most frequently. Interestingly, they reported the highest consumption of weeds introduced in association with agriculture. In other words, it appears that when time is limited or traditional species disappear, the population does not cease the practice of gathering altogether, but rather changes to more accessible, but still non-cultivated, species. Thus, when faced with the scarcity of one species, people may incorporate new ones into their diets. The vigorous weeds are abundant and make gathering a simpler, less time consuming task, an important consideration since the work-loads of rural women are heavy. "The cultivated ones need to be worked and then waited for, but the wild ones are ready'" said one respondent.

Nutritional benefits.

The added dietary diversity provided by wild foods is in itself a nutritional advantage. Respondents at the time of the survey added more than 40 species to their diet through the practice of gathering (Table 3), which, as previously mentioned, is vitally important when food stores are low. The nutritional value of many wild food plants, especially green foliage, is high. The wild species analysed in the survey are a major source of minerals, at least during spring and summer, and of course also supply significant amounts of vitamins and protein. A periodic high intake also helps maintain adequate physiological levels of some nutrients through periods of seasonal fluctuation in intake.

In addition to nutritional benefits, and to the dietary advantages of diversification at strategic periods of the year, other benefits of continued exploitation of wild foods should be noted. The practice of gathering wild plants just before cooking ensures a fresh product, and the advantages of freshness (in taste and nutrition) may be seen in relation to how often commercial alternatives are purchased, the hygienic standards of vegetable markets, and the inadequacy of home food stores.

Within the adult population, 98 per cent over the age of 40 recognized more than 30 wild food plants, while in the under-40 age group, 95 per cent did so. This remarkably high level of recognition, unrelated to age, shows that the knowledge of traditional wild food plants is probably not being lost to the extent feared.

Our study adds other interesting perspectives to the question of age related trends in consumption patterns. Contrary to findings elsewhere in southern Africa, for example Botswana, children in Swaziland recognized a great many different wild species and reported high levels of consumption of wild foods. Indeed, children in the Middleveld region ate somewhat more of them than did adults in that area.

Childhood learning.

In the traditional setting, training in recognition and gathering of wild plants was a natural part of childhood learning. The recognition of edible plants, and the ability to distinguish edible from toxic species, were skills initially transferred from elders. Later these skills were reinforced and extended by older children during the years spent tending the cattle herds. With the recent emphasis on formal education, the traditional training period has been shortened, and although the initial transfer of information probably remains, the reinforcement of foraging skills in later childhood is lost to many. Thus, one would expect the level of knowledge to have dropped. The finding that children have still managed to retain high levels of recognition may partly be explained by the strong emphasis on tradition, which is central to Swazi culture. Another important factor is the location of the schools; since children commonly complete their school education in a different region than that of their childhood, they extend their botanical knowledge to the flora of a different ecological zone.

The recognition of palatable wild food resources is carried through generations, mostly without written documentation. The gathering, use, and storage of these foods require skills developed over long periods. To find, in a population which goes through rapid economic development, that the younger generation has retained this cultural heritage is encouraging; it should be used to illustrate the need for systematic assessment of existing dietary practices as a basis for sound nutritional strategies.

Developing countries are counting on a new international code of conduct for maritime transportation to become an important tool for restructuring North-South commercial relations