10 Reasons Weeds Are the Future of Food
Weeds: The Only Thing Worse Than Terrorists
It’s a known fact that overgrown unkempt weedy lawns — if left unchecked — will rapidly destroy civilization. They are literally the only thing worse than terrorists. Just look at what happened to this poor innocent Dollar Store, the parking lot of which was left un-sprayed for only a short 24 hours…
“Oh my god, it’s either them or us! Plague! Plague! AAAAAAGH!!!”
What’s the best way to eliminate these horrible deadly noxious monsters once and for all?
Should we design terminator robots with machine vision so our fields and farms can be run “as efficiently as Silicon Valley tech companies”? Or maybe we really, finally can *believe* Monsanto with their claims of so-called “sustainable” applications of highly-toxic herbicides that will build up in our ground-water, soil, air, ecosystems and our bodies?
If any of that anti-weed hyperbole sounds just a little bit… well… off to you, we at Invironment understand. And we would like to welcome you officially to a parallel pro-weed & pro-nature universe which exists orthogonally to the pumped-up Guns ‘n Poison Brand Fear-O-Verse™ popularly foisted on us as the “only solution” for a sustainable future where the planet is able to feed her many hungry human children.
Obviously in some situations weed control is a necessity. We’re not here to debate that. We think instead a better conversation might be had around:
How can we incorporate “weeds” into our growing systems and take advantage of them as new sources of food?
With this in mind, we’d like to present Ten Reasons a Healthy Future Food Culture Should Include Weeds.
1. A vote for weeds is a vote for biodiversity.
So a weed has grown in your perfect garden bed. Gasp! Well, by golly, you didn’t plant it, so that’s reason enough to rip it out, strangle it, swear at it, spit on it and burn it — or better yet, spray it into submission. Right???
Instead, what if you let Nature make some of her own decisions for once? Maybe she knows intuitively something we’ve forgotten: that strictly controlled monocultures are invitations to system-wide disaster. That diversity is the spice of life. That different is beautiful. That it “takes a village.” That more really is merrier… I know, I know. That all sounds like hippy crap. But I’m just saying: what if?
2. Weeds tell secrets.
All species of life, everything else being equal, have certain conditions which they prefer to grow in. Weeds are no different. In fact, what weeds are growing in a certain area of their own accord can tell you a great deal about the soil conditions there. They are indicators.
Rodale says it better than us, so here:
Listen to Your Weeds!
Here are the most reliable weedy indicators and what they reveal about your soil. Photo: (cc) Howard Dickins/Flickr If…
One practical way to use information gleaned from natural weed populations in gardening is to research which domesticated plants are in the same family as the weeds growing naturally where you want to plant. Since groups of related plants tend to thrive under the same conditions, chances are good you’ll meet with success. As Mark Shepard observes: “Mimic what is effortlessly successful.”
3. Weeds condition the soil and help accumulate organic material.
Just like each plant has its preferred conditions for growth, each plant also performs certain functions within its ecosystem. The function of plants, generally, is the conversion of sun-light through photosynthesis into matter (and energy) which is then usable throughout an ecosystem.
Plants are like solar Bitcoin miners.
Except they are self-assembling, automatically reproducing and generate biomass which can be used in a billion different ways through life’s kingdoms. It’s actually better than money.
Certain weeds especially take their job of providing benefits for the rest of us very seriously. They are known as dynamic accumulators because their roots are able to reach farther down into the sub-soil than other plants (comfrey and dandelions are good examples) and bring up nutrients which become available for shallow-rooted plants.
Armed with this knowledge, how best to make use of it? Chop. And drop. When you cut or pull up weeds, lay them on the surface and simply let them decompose.
4. Many weeds are edible.
Biodiversity and soil conditioning are all well and good…
But did you know that there are literally hundreds of plants we consider “weeds” which are not just edible, but also delicious and nutritious?
We’ve written a lot about our experiences eating weeds before, so we won’t rehash the topic too much here. If you want to “go deep” on this subject, we recommend EatTheWeeds.com and Plants for a Future for learning more about which plants are edible and what to do with them gastronomically. This information has sadly been lost in most of modern food culture, though slowly but surely it is making a comeback. If you get in on the trend early, you’ll be able to say later that you were eating weeds before it was “cool.”
5. A lot of staple crops used to be weeds.
Actually, if we wanted to get down to “brass tacks” about it, literally *all* of the domesticated food species we now eat were, at some point in history, technically “wild.” When did we decide we were done with this process — that no more wild foods would find their way into our gardens and kitchens?
Check out this weedy bastard, for example:
If you found this guy hanging around in your carrot patch, you might be tempted to reach for the hori-hori or a nice bottle of glyphosate, right? Mmm… glypho-licious.
This plant is Brassica oleracea, a pretty common European weed. It’s also the wild ancestor of almost every single yummy cruciferous vegetable out there! Such popular favorites as: cabbage, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, kale (!!!), broccoli, and cauliflower.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Check out this tell-all info-graphic:
That’s right, kids! All of these amazing veggies we fawn over at farmer’s markets as being so unique and distinctive from one another are actually cultivated varieties of the same “parent” plant — and a weed to boot! This ain’t no lab-grown, venture-capital funded transgenic GMO — it’s the result of thousands of years of artificial selection of one single weed species to express the nutritional benefits (in this case, sulfur), growth patterns and tastes that we humans like. These plants and the food traditions around them are cultural treasures. And they are all, ultimately, genetically identical to a common weed!
A thousand years from now, what common “weed” species will our descendants consider staples?
Kale isn’t the only one either. Everybody loves corn, right? Have you ever tried eating it’s wild ancestor, teosinte?
That corny little bastard used to be way more like Pampas grass than the sweet nuggets of golden juicy goodness we enjoy today. However, through thousands of years of incorporating weeds into our diet, humans were able to transform this grassy weirdo into a staple food source.
Roughly similar process of weed plants mimicking crop plants brought oats and rye into the fold as well — just to name a few.
Turns out the definition of what’s a weed and what’s not aren’t so obvious after all. Maybe we should be trying to unlock the vast potential of the wild plants all around us before we rush off trying to hack together new ones? Just an idea!
6. Weeds are resilient and adaptable.
Weeds and other invasive species are both dangerous and tantalizing for the same reason: they are so effective at out-competing other species and taking over ecological niches.
Wouldn’t it be cool if we could take advantage of a food source that out-competes other species instead of trying to eradicate it?
Some people are already experimenting with that notion: they call themselves invasivores. Other buzzkills, of course, say this is a terrible idea. The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in between. But one thing is certain: with a changing global climate, the cards are getting shuffled. Whether you’re left with a winning hand or a losing hand will all be a matter of how you play the game. Are you ready?
How Climate Change Is Helping Invasive Species Take Over
Longer seasons and warmer weather have combined to be a game-changer in the plant wars.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), for example, is widely controlled via the application of good ol’ fashioned Round-Up. What if, instead of scattering that nasty stuff everywhere, we carefully developed controlled ways to integrate knotweed into our agriculture system in order to harvest its delicious, edible shoots?
Nobody is saying “LET’S GIVE INTO THE KNOTWEED AND BECOME THE KNOTWEED AND LIVE INSIDE THE KNOTWEED SO IT CHOKES US TO DEATH.” We are not knotweed cultists. Rather, what we’re saying is that weedy and so-called “invasive” species are opportunistic. And so should we be. They survive and thrive where humans or nature presents opportunity. Climate change will present some serious new opportunities for these species to survive and thrive. Are we ready to seize them, even if they look different from what we’re used to?
By consciously selecting for or eliminating against certain opportunities, we can find ways to work with these resilient species that could provide future society with so damned much food.
7. Because weeds are super-duper ultra-prolific.
This picture comes from Jeremy’s suburban Seattle “lawn”:
The broad-leaved stuff between the blades of grass is sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella). It’s super-tasty: citrusy, with a hint of fresh spinach flavor. Added to salads, or made into pestos or sauces, or used with cooked fish, it provides a nice, tangy, nutritional boost to your food.
OK, we’re getting away from the point, which is that instead of spraying this horror-show all over the lawn, we can take advantage of harvest after harvest of delicious, tart, leafy goodness. This is the third sheep’s sorrel “crop” that’s emerged this year.
In Tim’s Quebec garden, his spinach seeds produced tiny beautiful leaves that weighed next to nothing and didn’t even amount to a bowlful, let alone a mouthful. Not exactly stellar for a commercial vegetable production. Meanwhile, wild edible plants grew insanely all around, and he just started eating (and selling) them instead.
Most “weedy” or “invasive” species are just as prolific — it’s one of their survival strategies. Consider the humble dandelion, each of which can produce over 2,000 seeds — or the seeds of lamb’s quarters which can remain viable for upwards of 1,000 years. There are two ways to look at this: either that’s a lot of Round-Up you can spray on your yard for the coming centuries, or that’s a lot of free, nutritious, plant-based food you can eat and share with others. Who looks “stupid” now, Monsanto?
With multiple annual “harvests” to take advantage of, some even during the hottest and coldest parts of the year, weeds and invasives could potentially provide huge amounts of easy vegetable food if managed properly.
8. Weeds take less work to maintain than “normal” garden crops.
So-called “normal” garden plants take lots of work. You have to seed and probably transplant if you’re starting early indoors or in a greenhouse. You have to watch and water them — and make sure you don’t over-water. You might even need to fertilize them or give them mineral supplements to get them the way you want them. Depending on the species, you may have to prune them. And of course, you’ll have to do some weeding — er, I mean harvesting of their competitors…
Weeds, however, by definition don’t need any of that careful maintenance. You can pretty much do nothing and they’ll arrive and thrive all on their own. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. And about the only thing she abhors more is things that can’t be eaten… If you let some healthy self-seeding Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) stick around in your garden, they’ll be back next year. You can count on it. And that’s just one of many possible examples.
It’s worth noting that weeds can be plant disease vectors and habitats for rodents and insects. Some weeds may even be “illegal” in some jurisdictions (which still sounds funny, but whatever). This is why informed management and incorporation are recommended over complete eradication or complete capitulation.
9. Selling edible weeds and wild plants can be profitable — today.
Foraging isn’t just for poor people anymore. What was once the domain of Greek grannies and peoples stricken by famine, wild edible plants (depending on where you live) are currently fetching higher market prices in commercial kitchens than many of their domesticated counter-parts.
We should know, because Tim made it a big part of his small organic farm business this year:
What I do for Money — Weeds Edition
Selling in-season edible wild plants can be extremely worthwhile
If you’re looking to get into growing food as a business, why not skip all the planting and maintenance and just go straight to the profits? Learn to identify wild edible plants. Connect with local chefs who are already using them or would be willing to add them to their plates, and start sustainably harvesting. You need almost no other equipment besides a pair of scissors, some bags or boxes, a kitchen scale and maybe a refrigerator. What are you waiting for?
10. Weeds taste good!
Sure, after all is said and done, weeds are still “weeds,” right? Maybe you’re picturing something snuffling through the underbrush, crunching bitter thistles, barely surviving by scarfing down hair-covered or mildly noxious, astringent red berries. Maybe you’re worried that you don’t know enough about weeds to collect them safely, so it’s not worth the trouble.
But hey, listen: weeds are ingredients, not ‘meals-in-themselves.’
People are doing amazing things with weeds. Check out Gather Victoria for some incredibly delicious ideas like Dandelion Root Fudge (WHAT?!):
Dandelion Root Fudge Brownies with Dark Chocolate Chips
What does a children's wildcrafted fairy picnic need? Well, wild rose and daisy cupcakes, elderflower marshmallows, and…
We’ve featured a few recipes on Invironment already, and will continue to add to the edible weedy goodness:
Composed entirely of edible “weeds”, flowers and a few extra microgreens I had laying around.
If you can tell a dandelion from a daisy, you can learn all you need to collect some of the basic wild and weedy plants in a couple of afternoons. You don’t need to learn every wild plant. Just the good ones. Once you successfully identify them one time, you’ll be able to do it again and again. It’s like recognizing an old friend. For more on learning wild and weedy foods, check out these Invironment posts:
But that’s our “Future of Food.” What’s your vision?
Add your voice to the conversation today.
Bring your meal to the table. We can’t wait to taste it too!