Editor’s note: Megan Lindow is a journalist who completed her master’s degree at the Sustainability Institute at Stellenbosch University. This story draws on her research exploring how collaborative processes of storytelling may contribute towards understanding social-ecological resilience and transformation in the food landscapes of the Western Cape.
Pruning shears in hand, food activist Loubie Rusch strides towards a traffic island next to a car park at the beach, where she has spotted a healthy-looking carpet of dune spinach. It is April, and at this time of year in the Western Cape this hardy, low-growing plant normally spreads itself across the sand dunes, revelling in the abundance of new rainfall after a long dry season. But this year, the rains have not come. The region is in the throes of a severe drought, the worst in at least a century, and most dune spinach is hanging on by tangled woody stalks that have gone dormant.
Yet the batch Rusch has spied sports lush green top growth that she pulls back to examine the messy tangles of desiccated stalks underneath, rooted in the sand. She decides that this cluster of dune spinach is healthy enough to harvest. “It’s just so pervasive, a real pioneer”, she marvels as she snips off fresh green sprigs.
Rusch herself is also a pioneer, working with a small but growing movement, both local and global, that sees endemic local wild foods as a way to address connected challenges from a societal and ecological perspective. She experiments with dune spinach and other wild foods and collaborates with people in many segments of society, to shift how people think about food, while helping to unearth and spread vanishing knowledge about local edible plants.
Dune spinach, for example, is one of many endemic crops in South Africa’s Western Cape with the potential to “grow themselves”, Rusch says, using minimal water and no chemical additives. Cultivating these long-ignored species could provide sources of nutritious, sustainable, and affordable food for people faced with challenges that include widespread food and nutrition insecurity, as well as climate change.
“When the colonists arrived here, our local food economy was a foraging economy. None of our local Western Cape winter rainfall foods have ever been cultivated, and I think it’s time that changed”, says Rusch. “The things that grow here are completely acclimatised to growing here, and many of these things are delicious. They have real culinary value.”
The original inhabitants of the Western Cape region, the Khoisan, were hunter-gatherer and herder groups who would have known how to use the edible plants growing here. However, colonists who introduced European and Mediterranean staples such as wheat and grapes for cultivation also enslaved the Khoisan and dispossessed them of their lands. In the process, much knowledge of edible plants in the landscape was lost. What remains is used mostly by older people living in remote, isolated communities, Rusch says.
Rusch, who spent 30 years as a landscape designer before turning full time to wild food, shares her enthusiasm widely for these hardy plants, often regarded by locals as weeds or “poor man’s food”. With her warm and energetic personality, she is equally at home kneeling down in a bed of dune spinach as when spreading out plant cuttings and bottles of local wild herbs and vegetables that she has preserved herself, to show people and let them taste.
Rusch, age 56, traces the roots of her enthusiasm for local wild foods to a childhood of long days of outdoor exploration on her family’s three-acre plot outside of Stellenbosch, snacking on fruit plucked from trees and other edible things along her way. Her stepfather, an archaeologist, made her aware from an early age that food naturally occurs in the landscape.
“The landscape to me is a fundamental part of this question of feeding ourselves”, says Rusch. “I think we are more and more disconnected from where we are, and for me one of the critical things about being disconnected from your landscape is that you become a bad custodian of it.”
Here in the Western Cape, the vision of a local food landscape has long been supplanted by industrialisation and globalisation of the food system, which has accelerated over the past 50 years. The wheat, wine grapes, olives, stone fruit, and other European staples introduced in the colonial era are now the primary crops grown here, for export as well as local consumption.
These large-scale commercial crops swallow up land and require chemical additives such as pesticides and fertilisers that harm local ecosystems. They may also increasingly fail in the future due to the drier conditions that are expected for the region as a result of climate change.1 1. Engelbrecht, F., Adegoke, J., Bopape, M.-J., Naidoo, M., Garland, R., Thatcher, M., McGregor, J., Katzfey, J., Werner, M., Ichoku, C., 2015. Projections of rapidly rising surface temperatures over Africa under low mitigation. Environmental Research Letters. 10:085004 DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/8/085004
“Loubie’s work addresses the key issues of community engagement and access to indigenous foods, along with the broader dilemmas of our reliance on rice, wheat, and maize”, says Laura Pereira, a food systems researcher with the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition at Stellenbosch University.
In South Africa, long legacies of colonisation and apartheid are also reflected in highly unequal patterns of land ownership and access to nutritious, affordable food.2 2. Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, South Africa, 2013. Land Audit Booklet. 31 pp. Download Food insecurity has been rising in poor communities, alongside a transition towards cheap, processed foods that have less nutrition.3 3. Pereira, L., Drimie, S., 2016. Governance Arrangements for the Future Food System: Addressing Complexity in South Africa. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58(4):18-31. DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2016.1186438 A National Food Consumption Survey in 2005 found that more than a fifth of South African children were stunted from malnutrition, with those between the ages of one and three most severely affected.4 4. Labadarios, D., Swart, R., Maunder, E. M. W., Kruger, H. S., Gericke, G. J., Kuzwayo, P. M. N., Ntsie, P. R., Steyn, N. P., Schloss, I., Dhansay, M. A., Jooste, P.L., Dannhauser, A. (Directors); Nel, J. H., Molefe, D., Kotze, T. J. W. (Statisticians). The National Food Consumption Survey Fortification Baseline (NFCS-FB-I): South Africa, 2005. Directorate: Nutrition, Department of Health. Pretoria. 2007. Link to SAJNA journal download page This, combined with similar levels of hunger across the broader population, emphasises the imperative of making sources of healthy, affordable food accessible to the poor.3 3. Pereira, L., Drimie, S., 2016. Governance Arrangements for the Future Food System: Addressing Complexity in South Africa. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58(4):18-31. DOI: 10.1080/00139157.2016.1186438
Rusch believes that local wild foods can potentially meet such challenges, especially if they can be cultivated widely at a grassroots level. As Rusch began to discover more and more edible wild plant species through her foraging, she also began to realise the importance of learning how to farm these species to make them accessible to a wider population. She wants to see dune spinach and other local foods in community gardens, restaurants, markets, and on supermarket shelves.
Because they are better adapted to the local environment, Rusch believes that adding the diversity of indigenous plants to local growers’ baskets would require fewer chemical inputs and less water use than current commercial crops, and add nutritious local greens to local buyers’ diets, at cheaper prices. She has begun to test these assumptions, first focusing on growing dune spinach and about ten other endemic “edible carpet plants”: all are hardy, dense, low-growing perennials that are endemic to the Cape Flats and proliferate in its poor sandy soils, as well as all along the Western Cape coastline.
Someone needs to drive and coordinate experimentation with local wild foods, Rusch says, “and I’ve kind of tasked myself with playing that role”. A lot of work is necessary “in order to eventually be able to go to the supermarket and buy a punnet of veldkool [wild asparagus] and bags of dune spinach leaves, so that actually it becomes a viable commercial food-growing industry that is completely locally sustainable”.
Disappearing edible environments
Rusch hopes local fast-growing perennials are the tip of a huge trove of untapped edible biodiversity in the Cape. The area, roughly the size of England, has a Mediterranean climate that is ecologically distinct from the summer rainfall grassland biomes found in other parts of Africa. Home to the Cape Floral Region, characterised by the Fynbos (shrubland) vegetation unique to the area, UNESCO has named this the smallest and most diverse of the six “Floral Kingdoms” found on Earth. The global biodiversity hotspot boasts some 9,600 different plant species, of which 20% are threatened with extinction, according to the City of Cape Town, and Rusch estimates that hundreds may be edible.
A look at satellite images of the region tells a sobering story: vast expanses of monoculture wheat fields fringed by tiny pockets of biodiverse natural habitat. A feature of the hotspot’s extraordinary biodiversity is the small and limited ranges of a number of distinct plant species: some occur only in areas half the size of a football field, meaning that even small developments and expansions in agriculture can wipe out an entire species. Conservation International estimates 15 species per square kilometre are in danger of extinction in the area.
Converting some of these agricultural lands to the cultivation of locally adapted edible species could be a way of keeping more of this local biodiversity intact, Rusch says.
“The landscape to me is a fundamental part of this question of feeding ourselves.”
Revitalising the knowledge of wild foods, which is valuable in and of itself, could lead to other breakthroughs. A “mountain of research” still needs to be done to find ways to grow these plants at a large scale for commercial markets, Rusch says. That requires knowing how to propagate and cultivate the plants, different crops’ commercial potential, and the plants’ nutritional content. The research “needs to be spanning across from the growing to the cooking to the research. They all need to knit in with each other and not be happening in isolation from one another”, says Rusch. “There is such an opportunity to shape new thinking.”
Solutions in collaborations
One afternoon about five years ago, Rusch made a lunch of roasted vegetables that included watsonia corms, a native flowering plant’s bulb-like roots that are bright orange in June as they start to sprout after the onset of winter rains. That lunch was a learning experience, she says: “now I know that anything you collect that is bright orange is likely to be full of tannin, which is going to make it bitter as hell.”
This lunchtime experiment has been taken further through an informal collaboration of three women: Rusch; Elzanne Singels, a PhD student who is studying local tubers, bulbs and corms found in the archaeological record of the Later Stone Age in the Cape Floristic Region; and Zayaan Khan, an indigenous food and seed activist who coordinates the Slow Food Youth Network for Southern Africa. Together, the three women – who call themselves the Tannin Tannies (tannies is the Afrikaans word for “aunty”) – have been experimenting with a variety of different ways of leaching tannin using water, brine, fermentation, ash, slicing, and grinding methods.
“Suddenly you might develop the potential for a plant to become commercially desirable, from having been a no-go zone in terms of appealing to modern palates”, Rusch says. Her strategy is to start with plants “that don’t need much processing and are pretty delicious virtually straight off the bush, and are pretty easy to grow”, eventually trying to grow them in local sand, she says. “You just add more and more plants that one could explore to grow commercially on these lands where the wheat crops are failing.”
Cultivating indigenous edibles on degraded farmlands, where they have been observed to act as hardy pioneer species, has intrigued another of Rusch’s collaborators, Kobus van der Merwe, a chef based on the West Coast. Through almost daily explorations of a tiny pocket of strandveld (beach scrub) fynbos habitat, van der Merwe has pioneered ways of introducing the subtle and diverse flavours of the landscape into his signature dishes.