New research in Zambia highlights the high volumes collected of a wide range of wild foods – from insects to freshwater fish to leafy greens and tubers – in rural areas across all of the country’s agroecological zones. “Across Zambia, many types of wild food were collected by every rural household surveyed, except one, and in substantial amounts,” said Ashley Steel, a forest officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and lead author of the paper, which was published this month in People and Nature.
The study provided methods to quantify the amounts collected of these wild foods, and presents data to show how much wild food rural Zambians are collecting. It highlighted the need to acknowledge this resource in forest management policies to ensure that these foods remain available, particularly in the face of challenges such as climate change and deforestation. The work suggested that accurate and local data can help policy makers design effective forest management policies and ensure community access to forests.
“Wild food collection from forests, even degraded forests, appears to be ubiquitous in rural areas,” said Steel. “Forest loss and degradation are, therefore, national concerns that have food security and social implications in addition to environmental impacts.”
Globally, government policies rarely pay enough attention to the importance of wild foods such as wild fish, small animals, and plants used in traditional medicines – in part, because use of these products has been difficult to quantify. As a case in point, this data is thought to be some of the first to quantify the volume of wild forest foods collected across Zambia. To do so, the scientists measured how much of these foods is collected, and what types in which areas. The research, which formed part of a pilot project that has informed a larger survey of wild food collection in Zambia, involved 209 households across 14 villages covering all agroecological zones in the country. Sixty vendors in five large markets were also surveyed.
Fruit was the most common product collected across regions and households, with at least 90 percent of households saying they gathered fruit. About 76 percent of households collected green leafy vegetables, and 73 percent collected mushrooms. Twenty-seven to 75 percent of households across the five sites said they collected medicinal and aromatic plants, and 10 to 68 percent of households collected honey. There was high variation across agroecological regions in the quantity of insects, tubers, nuts, wild meat, wild fish, and aquatic plants gathered, pointing to the importance of data that can be disaggregated to the local level.
The authors used the findings to extrapolate that rural households in Zambia collect 380,000 cubic meters of wild foods annually – that’s about 12 million large (20-litre) collection buckets! About 88 percent of the volume of wild foods collected in the study was gathered directly from forests, indicating that wild foods from forests can be important to building the resilience of households in the face of crises such as climate change or pandemics.
Wild foods can also make a significant impact on dietary diversity, said paper co-author and principal investigator for the project, Amy Ickowitz, who is a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)–World Agroforestry Center (CIFOR-ICRAF). “These nutrient-rich wild foods are particularly important in Zambia, where maize-based staple foods are the base of diets which lack diversity,” she said; “wild foods can provide an important nutritional supplement to diets, increasing their diversity and nutrient content.”
Although the most food-insecure households collected high volumes of wild food, the correlation between food security and wild food collection wasn’t strong. Evidence was also mixed on whether wealth was a predictor of wild food collection, and other factors such as proximity to forests were also likely important.
The goal of the methodological design and awareness-raising provided by the new research is to improve global data on collection of wild foods from forests. Wild foods are not only important in Zambia: 15 of 71 non-OECD countries surveyed reported regular use of wild foods by the majority of their populations, according to a 2019 FAO report.
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