The most sustainable foods on the planet will surprise you

Category Health & Nutrition | Posted April 18, 2023

By Pierce Hollingsworth

Check any list of the most sustainable foods from any source. They vary widely, but generally, all have a low carbon footprint, require minimal additional nutrition (fertilizer), minimal irrigation (water), and low levels of processing. Usually, these standards are applied to cultivated foods grown in fields, orchards, or aquaponic facilities. This includes new technology such as vertical farming, precision farming, and closed-loop farming. Each is aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of herbicides and pesticides, recycling water, and cutting down on pollution, waste, and energy. While all are managed systems from planting to harvesting, they work.

But the most sustainable foods are those that don’t require any cultivation-added nutrients, irrigation, or energy intensive maintenance. In fact, they do better without any human involvement—until it’s time to harvest the crop. And that can be done with little environmental disruption. We’re talking about wild foods.

Wild foods such as Black Walnuts, morels (mushrooms), greens, wild blueberries, maple syrup, line-caught fish, grains, and various game species have become increasingly popular.  They’re not only sustainable, they contain abundant and valuable nutrients that are often bred or processed out of cultivated foods. Living and growing in the wild, as they have for eons, has given these foods unique, often powerful nutrient profiles. They also have distinctive, bolder flavors that have been embraced by many of the finest chefs.

In fact, the recently published Business of Sustainability Index, published by GreenPrint, says, “Despite the pressure of high inflation — which has skyrocketed in the US since 2020— 66 percent of US consumers and 80 percent of young US adults (ages 18-34) surveyed are willing to pay more for sustainable products versus less sustainable competitors.”

Wild foods also demand responsible resource management. They’re generally harvested by foragers, ranging from hunters to chefs seeking out local delicacies in local fields and forests. Wild foods also are increasingly featured in the media—from the Food Network and Outdoor Channel (WildFed, episode “Snowshoe Hare and Black Walnuts”) to the New York Times. The foragers, and most people who seek out wild foods, understand the importance of harvesting no more than can be replaced in nature. Fish, game, greens, mushrooms—if over- or improperly harvested, won’t last long.

Among the most successful examples of sustainable wild agriculture, it the Black Walnut. The trees are wild and native to North America. They grow in most states but are most abundant in Missouri and throughout the Ohio valley and central eastern US. And unlike many native fruits and vegetables, like cranberries, they have never been cultivated on a commercial scale. Yet millions of pounds of Black Walnuts are harvested and sold each year to a growing number of enthusiasts. You could call the harvesting effort a type of physical “crowd sourcing.” Tens of thousands of people, from families to schools and clubs, collect the nuts by hand every fall when they drop to the ground. They take their bounty to seasonal collection stations sponsored by Hammons Products Co., of Stockton, Mo., and get paid by the pound. The nuts are then efficiently shipped in bulk to the company’s plant for shelling and bagging. Nothing goes to waste. Even the shell is a popular, environmentally safe, industrial abrasive.

Black Walnuts are completely different from the common English Walnut most people know. English Walnuts have their origins in the Middle East and were introduced to America by early European settlers. The Black Walnut, an entirely different and native species, was already here and popular with indigenous peoples who prized the food value and used the husks for dyes and tinctures. The Black Walnut is also nutrient-packed. For instance, it has more protein by weight than any other tree nut.

For generations, Black Walnuts have been popular for use in baking, ice cream, candy, salads, and main dishes. Because its tough shell limited production, and many people cracked their own from local supplies. Then, in the 1940s the Hammons family figured out a way to make them commercially viable on a much larger scale. Today, Black Walnuts are experiencing a major renaissance due to their extraordinary sustainability, health benefits, and unique taste.

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