Rediscovering the rich diversity of native plants
Joseph Simcox hopes his research of wild food plants and their native habitats will create more sustainable ecosystems.
Joseph Simcox is a world food plant ecologist and ethnobotanist who travels the globe identifying, documenting, and tasting thousands of food plants. He traverses the wilderness, interviews villagers, and searches markets around the world for underutilized crops and wild species. Simcox hopes to help preserve species and varieties that are in danger of extinction and increase appreciation for biodiversity by distributing rare seeds to the public, farmers, and researchers.
He aims to ensure global food security and to increase the availability of nutritious produce, while developing food systems that mimic nature.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Joseph Simcox about indigenous crops, saving seeds, and how native plants can contribute to more sustainable ecosystems.
Food Tank (FT): Can you talk about where your passion for seeds originated? What inspired you to become a food plant ecologist and ethnobotanist?
Joseph Simcox (JS): I have been interested in plants and biology since as early as I can remember. Biology was my first curriculum. One of my earliest lessons in biology that I can remember was a phrase that my mother taught me. I was running around at three years old repeating ‘Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny.’ I didn’t understand what that meant then, but the expression influenced how I became who I am.
My earliest childhood memories include chasing insects, examining flowers, and playing with seeds. When I was four years old, I was “traumatized” when the white rice that I planted in a cake pan of mud rotted instead of grew. For my seventh birthday, I asked my parents for squash as presents rather than a G.I Joe. As the years went on, my interest in plants and flowers grew.
I studied outside of my comfort zone in college (mathematics and philosophy) but plants were always closest to my heart. Years later a dear friend and mentor encouraged me to use my passion to make a living and seed collecting became my livelihood.
FT: How do you envision wild food plants and their native habitats creating more sustainable ecosystems?
JS: I’ll use North America and specifically the states as an example to showcase my point. The United States is basically a country that has come to dominate the homeland of others. We as the “European invaders” pushed out their traditions long ago, we tried to extinguish their knowledge, and we moved them from their native lands. What is surprising to many Americans is that the United States had ancient food traditions within its boundaries, which, although they were mostly forgotten, can be resurrected because the great majority of wild food plants still survive.
Before the European colonialists came here, some 3,000 species of plants were used for food in North America, and this is excluding Mexico. Most of these edible species occurred within the confines of the United States, and what is amazing about this is that even today certain anthropologists and food experts will cite the apparent lack of edible domesticated species originating in this part of the world as “proof” that North America did not have much food plant diversity, which, of course, is and never was the case. Now, because of resurging interest in native foodways, we are provoked to revisit the edible plants that grow within our world.
I like to ask people how many domestic plants they can name that originated in the United States. Most can hardly count off a handful: sunflowers, pecans, blueberries, cranberries, and maybe strawberries. There were several plants that were cultivated by the Native North Americans like corn, beans, and squash, but they likely originated south of the border. So people know a few, but not very many when compared to the 3,000-plus species I referred to. What does this mean for us? It means that we need to re-examine those useful plants of old so that we can use them in the future. All of them are adapted to their specific places of origin and in this sense, it puts them first on the list for research, trial, and selection.
FT: You search the world for under-utilized food crops and wild edible species to promote them for cultivation and use. How can we promote these practices, which emphasize a return to our ancestral traditions, as paramount to a sustainable food system in the face of the ever-marching advancement of industrialized agriculture?
JS: I believe one way is to start by mesmerizing people with diversity. My colleague, Irina Stoenescu, and I have created a project for Whole Foods that—although it hasn’t materialized yet—is in discussion. The strategy is to introduce the marvels of food plant diversity to the stores through photos and stories of food traditions past.
We will help people discover the myriad of ways that nature condenses food and entice them to learn more about the “mysterious wild” side of eating.
The effect of such an approach is that people become more sophisticated, more involved, and more curious about what they eat. It is harder to be lackadaisical when you are armed with curiosity. The inherent danger of eating in our commercial food world is that you don’t have to think because it is all there—what companies have produced—waiting to satisfy you, tempting you to consume, even subconsciously.
You don’t have to think and ask questions if you go to McDonald’s, you don’t ponder the menu too much after a few visits; you know there is a cheeseburger, a chocolate shake, and fries. In my talks, I hope to provoke people to be curious about nature. That’s the first step, as soon as you start doing that, you hear people say, “Oh my Lord, I never knew that all this existed!” That’s what I hear when I go around the country and show them a tantalizingly beautiful cob of corn that’s really different. One thing I notice is that lack of comprehension is closely related to a lack of observation. If you look at the trails that you’ve walked in your history, you will often be surprised when you discover something new like a water tower…it may have always been there, but because you did not tune in, you never “noticed” it.
This is the same thing that happens when people are discovering the riches of nature. They have no clue. As they discover it, they start to realize that they are missing out on something, and that’s the second element—to instill in people the fear that they are missing out. So there is a marketing strategy: First of all, entice them and tell them that they are missing out. Then lead them to understand that they are missing out, and no one wants to miss out! It’s like getting half of a bag of popcorn at the theater. And that’s what people are doing—they are getting a half-empty bag as they live life in this mass-commercial way.
FT: What role does technology play?
JS: Technology is a tool. It’s just like how in the kitchen you have the things that you use to prepare food, they are the tools—the blender, the beater, the grinder, and the shredder. They are elements outside of the real picture—they are things you use. The rest of it is what you are living on. There is nothing bad about technology, it’s just that some people get obsessed with it, and I mean really obsessed. Can you imagine having a kitchen full of tools with hardly anything in the fridge to eat? That is kind of how we are living today, lots of gadgets in the “kitchen” and not very much nature to go along with it to eat.
FT: You collaborate with growers, universities, industry, governments, and non-governmental organizations around the world. How can all of these entities work together to create a more harmonious balance between man and nature?
JS: The compilation of all of us as individuals is an element of diversity, so as we each discover our relationship with nature, it multiplies a positive trend. I am thinking the inverse of corporations, institutions, and universities. I am not looking at these entities to be the changers; I am looking at people to be the change within those organizations and therefore emphasize a different point of view—that it’s not the corporations that are going to change things. That’s the follower mentality rather than the thinker mentality. The follower mentality is what is obstructing our abilities to facilitate change.
FT: You have visited more than 109 countries throughout your field research. Through all of your travels and discoveries, have you seen a common thread that identifies thriving and sustainable food systems?
JS: People who are connected with their environment, people who are connected with nature, and people who have a love for the world around them. That really is the interface between humans and nature that seems to be carried out in every single scenario where there is a synergistic relationship with nature. They love their nature, and they understand it in a way that is more mystical than we do—as industrialized modern man, or as we, the society of the United States, does.
FT: How can Food Tank readers who are not actively involved in growing their food and saving seeds advance a more sustainable food system?
Many people do not have the opportunity to grow their food, and that means that they necessarily depend on others to raise their food for them. One good start is to become curious about what you eat, curious about the plants and even the history of their use. By being informed and knowing what you are eating, we can make informed choices that ultimately affect retailers and producers. Rather than just accepting what producers offer us, it is time to tell the food “industry” what we want. Asking for new produce or buying strange looking fruits and vegetables tells the retailer that you like diversity and ultimately this tells the producer to seek it out. The trickle down effect can become a flood, and little by little, a whisper becomes a shout if repeated enough.
For those readers who are interested in raising their own food and saving seeds, I suggest that they look up a very interesting project: Gardens Across America. When I started Gardens Across America, it was to provide people with the opportunity to participate in a coast-to-coast effort to stitch America together with garden networks and to save rare and endangered food plants. I would encourage Food Tank readers to get involved with Gardens Across America and to visit my website, Explore with Joseph, for more information about seed saving, growing open pollinated crops, and preserving indigenous ones. Little by little, we all can be more inspired about nature’s riches and when that happens the world will be a better place!
This article first appeared at NerdWallet.