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Expert Q&A: Dr. Gary Nabhan

The founder of Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance sees powerful partners in ecological restoration practitioners.

By Amy Neslon

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Gary Paul Nabhan, an internationally celebrated nature writer, seed saver, conservation biologist and sustainable agriculture activist, has been called “the father of the local food movement” by Mother Earth News. Gary is also an orchard keeper, wild forager and Ecumenical Franciscan brother in his hometown of Patagonia, Arizona near the Mexican border. In 2004, Gary founded the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) collaborative, an alliance of food, farming, environmental and culinary advocates dedicated to the identification, restoration and celebration of America’s biologically and culturally diverse food traditions through conservation, education, promotion and regional networking. Gary has authored more than 20 books and numerous articles, all of which are available on his web site.

In his book Renewing America’s Food Traditions, Gary and his colleagues identify 1080 foods at risk in North America, including 267 species, subspecies and populations of fish, game and other wild foods. He and colleagues DeJa Walker and Alberto Mellado Moreno wrote about these 267 foods in the September issue of the journal Ecological Restoration. This exciting article, entitled Biocultural and Ecogastronomic Restoration: The Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance, explores and encourages linkage of ecosystem restoration with the recovery of place-based plant and animal species, subspecies, and stocks historically utilized as foods and the culture with which they have been associated. The article was by no means Gary’s first foray into ecological restoration. He began the Desert Restoration Task Force and the Tribal Lands Restoration Task force on the Colorado Plateau over his quarter century of involvement in ecological restoration. He is now working on food chain restoration for migratory pollinators in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.

Gary compares the multitude of factors causing the depletion of place-based food sources to the many, mounting layers of an onion. At the core of this onion, he says, is a spiritual dilemma. “If we no longer believe that the earth is sacred, or that we are blessed by the bounty around us, or that we have a caretaking responsibility,” writes Gary, “…then it does not really matter to most folks how much ecological and cultural damage is done by the way we eat.” We were thrilled to have the chance to speak with Gary about his work.

In very general terms, how would you describe the overall state of place- based food species, subspecies and populations in North America?

About 1/8 to 1/10 of all plant species in North America have edible and medicinal uses, and a good proportion of those are listed in NatureServe as being at risk either at the state, national or global level. The actual numbers of historically utilized food products at risk in North America change through time, but we’ve recorded hundreds of plants that still have uses among Native American communities and other traditional communities in North America that are of conservation concern to biologists and resource managers.

How much of the food that people were eating in North America 200 years ago is still here today?

We have to pay attention not only to species being lost, but whether specific populations are being lost. We’ve lost hundreds of historical populations stocks and unique genetic strains of wild edible and medicinal plants in North America. I don’t think there’s a specific, single number.

When we talk about foods at risk in North America, we’re talking about 267 subspecies, stocks, or unique populations. Our best guess is that 38% of North American wild foods at risk are now on their way to being involved in ecological restoration projects.

In the book Renewing America’s Food Traditions, you and your co-authors present a list of 1080 foods at risk, but your article in the journal Ecological Restoration only mentions 267. What is the difference between the two lists?

The 267 are wild, which include wild game (birds, mammals, reptiles) wild fish, shellfish and plants. The rest of that 1080 are heirloom vegetables, fruits, and important livestock breeds that the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance is interested in. For your readers, I’d like to focus on those 267 wild populations and stocks of plants and animals because they have the possibilities for collaborations for professionals as well as amateurs involved in restoration.

We carefully went through all of the articles in the journal Ecological Restoration since its beginning to see which of these species and subspecies were mentioned. We found that 38% were already in recovery.

In what percent of those projects/articles would you say the restoration of food species, subspecies and populations was intentional vs. coincidental?

We found that 17% [of the 267 wild foods] are very specifically mentioned in articles about projects involving broad collaborations for both the genetic recovery and the restoration of habitat that serves that species or subspecies. These types of collaborations, which we call “biocultural” and “ecogastronomic” restoration, appear to be bringing people such as conservation biologists, ecological restorationists and soil scientists together with native plant societies, wild foragers, indigenous tribes, and chefs groups that want to contribute to the recovery of species that have been historically depleted.

I should mention that no one is talking about sanctioning the use and harvesting of ecological restoration plots before they have fully recovered and are regenerating themselves sustainably. We’re very cautious to make sure that the hard work done by those involved in ecological restoration is not met with additional pressures by wild foragers. We want to make sure that once a habitat and its edible species are recovered, land managers and communities make decisions about what level of harvesting can be tolerated without depleting the stock or damaging the habitat.

What prompted you to submit the piece to the journal Ecological Restoration? Was there an “a-ha” moment during which you discovered that it’d make sense to reach out to the ecological restoration community?

One of the moments for me was working with a very gifted Mexican [and Seri Indian] aquaculturalist and conservation biologist who is the third author of the paper, Alberto Mellado. We had just seen hurricane damage to the coastal lagoon in the Gulf of California from which his ancestors had received quite a bit of their nutrition (shellfish.) Their scallop and clam beds were inundated with sand, which disrupted their productive capacity. This productive capacity was also of economic importance to the village where Alberto lives. Alberto had just earned an aquaculture degree, but he didn’t want to apply it to conventional, industrialized shrimp farming or anything that would reduce habitat quality along the coast of his people’s homeland. He wanted to use his aquaculture skills to restore natural populations of oysters and scallops in his community.

We realized that by building coalitions [comprised of] user groups and conservation groups that could find overlapping values and goals, we had a new paradigm for ecological restoration. If people are engaged both in the restoration process and in sustainably harvesting the products, there’s a feedback loop where they stay involved in monitoring the quality of habitat and making sure it’s not damaged by other means. We really see that the local food movement and the interest in food security can be matched with conservation goals.

So that experience with Alberto is what prompted you to put the piece together for the journal Ecological Restoration?

Yes, that was the “a-ha” moment, and within a few weeks of that, I was a guest speaker with Dennis Martinez and Eric Jones, two people who have been involved in ecological restoration in the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with indigenous communities. We realized that many of us were independently reinventing this connection. We saw that indigenous communities, among many other rural communities, understood the logic of doing ecosystem restoration, but they also had this additional goal of wanting their children and grandchildren to be able to harvest healthy, native foods in the future.

Can you tell us a little more about Alberto’s project?

There are two elements to the project. First, there is open water aquaculture of oysters using some innovative techniques that do not require the use of antibiotics or other nutrients to fertilize oyster production. The oysters are in netted bags, but they are also producing spawn that helps regenerate the population in surrounding areas with high tidal flow. The other component of the project involves an aquacultural nursery to re-establish several species of scallops in some of the hurricane damaged areas. The scallops are essentially started in an aquacultural nursery and then released in the nearby estuary and allowed to grow to natural sizes. We’ve been looking at a particular genus–Atrina. We have Atrina maura and Atrina tuberculosa being established in open waters of coastal lagoons. In that case, it’s really a matter of building up the population over a number of years. There’s no commercial product out of that yet. The focus has been on allowing the population to recover before utilization of those scallops resumes.

Is the population recovering? What sort of monitoring is being done to evaluate that?

There is seasonal monitoring of both the oysters and scallops. There are actually two species of oysters-an endemic Sea of Cortes oyster and a pearl oyster- that are being propagated. Their numbers are very high. The project has been incredibly successful. The scallop restoration has been patchy in its success. The scallops are very particular in terms of initial substrate. Alberto is having indigenous youth help him monitor the scallops on a seasonal basis. There is also water quality monitoring, because in order to sell the products to U.S. markets in the future, they have to have over a year and a half of high quality water tests to ensure there are no contaminates in the estuary or any food safety issues. The scallops and oysters have been used for village feasts, but until there have been sufficient water quality tests (Alberto will probably wait at least two years) there will not be commercial sales.

You, Alberto and the article’s other author, DeJa Walker, highlight Alberto’s project as a model ecological restoration project. Why do you consider it a model?

Most Native American people who live in coastal communities have seen, with globalization and acculturation, rapid loss of their traditional knowledge about fish, shellfish and plant resources. One key thing with this project is that the traditional ecological knowledge of tribal elders helped plan the site before the reintroduction took place. Alberto is, by inheritance, considered a caretaker of the particular site where the scallops are being reintroduced. The project is serving not only ecological conservation but cultural conservation of traditional knowledge of this resource.

A huge group sponsored by the global non-profit organization Ocean Revolution is helping with the work. They have been trained in aquaculture and ecological restoration by a number of universities and conservation nonprofits. They formed their own conservation group among the Seri Indian youth in Mexico that has won an [Ocean Revolution Native Oceans Award] for combining cultural preservation with biological conservation (of sea turtles, shellfish and eelgrass). So, this project has been a success not only in terms of its biological goals, but in its cultural goals as well.

RAFT operates according to seven principles, which you call the “Seven Rs.” (See Resources for complete list). Numbers five and six relate to economics: “Recuperating markets & local infrastructures to support their production” and “rewarding & actively supporting original stewards of the resources with market-based incentives.” Is Alberto’s project a case where that is happening? How do you do that?

When talking about recuperating markets in general, we have to remember that some species and habitats were depleted because there were no constraints on markets before. [For example,] the gathering of feathers from herons and cranes and the overhunting of passenger pigeons helped deplete those species.

What we’re trying to do is recuperate markets that have a positive feedback loop with conservation by focusing on restaurants that have sustainability and conservation goals for how they source their food. We’re working nationally in the U.S. with a non-profit called Chefs Collaborative, which has very strong ties to the New England Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Slow Food International has sponsored a number of projects with the Seri Indians that have criteria for sustainability and recovery of endangered foods. It’s really a different kind of market.

The second part of your question about rewarding and actively supporting the original stewards of these resources goes back to some of the work done by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. This work shows that where we have local communities that are long-term stewards of forestry and fisheries resources, we often do a better job than government agencies can do by themselves. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering work in the economics of natural resource use. Groups like the National Council for Science and the Environment now recognize that traditional knowledge from user communities should be considered complementary, rather than antagonistic, to western science-based knowledge.

We’re really talking about drawing upon [and combining] the collective wisdom and traditional knowledge of indigenous communities of the last several thousand years with the most up to date, technologically-derived knowledge of Western science. Rather than trying to privilege one over the other, we’re finding out that we get more cohesive management by integrating the two.

What kind of reaction has the article in Ecological Restoration received from those in the ecological restoration community?

A number of resource managers who are Native American or are working for Native American tribes feel very gratified that there is a place for them in work that is sanctioned by scientists. [They viewed the article] as a nod to go on and continue doing their work. They feel that rather than being on the margins of ecological restoration, they are bridges between different constituencies.

I have also heard cautionary comments, specifically from foresters in the Seattle area. They have done ecological restoration projects in which they find wild foragers harvesting berries or mushrooms from the habitat before it is fully restored. I had to remind them that we’re really talking about all stakeholders being involved in the planning and monitoring, and not ad hock, informal use of an area independent of the ecological restoration stewards. But those cautions are something I welcome. I’m not trying to sell unconfined use of restoration plots by anyone. I want this to be a give-and -take where we naturally build more inclusive groups of stakeholders (scientists, restoration volunteers, foragers, community elders, etc.)

In his sidebar in response to your article, former Ecological Restoration editor William Jordan says that your work challenged him to consider the distinction between “self-interested management of natural resources” and “allocentric” or other-centric restoration. He concludes that both forms of restoration, practiced side-by side, are necessary. What was your reaction to his reaction?

I was very much relieved by it. Earlier, in several of his articles, he had sort of drawn a line in the sand and said, “We have already messed up so much of the earth’s surface. Shouldn’t we be hands-off of restoration areas until there is good evidence that we’re not messing up more?” He has a brilliant, creative mind, and he is one of the true geniuses of the ecological restoration movement. I viewed his response as another blessing encouraging Native American resource managers to collaborate with those involved in ecological restoration.

I think William Jordan realizes that there’s hope here that goes beyond Native American communities and is applicable to nearly any rural or urban community where there is place-based knowledge. I think his commentary is just as important as our article because it opens up a wider forum of discussion that includes both amateur and professional restorationists.

I read (on the Native Seed/SEARCH web site) that one in 15 wild, edible plant and animal species on this continent has diminished to the degree that it is now considered at risk. To bring this home to our readers, can you tell us the story of one or two of these species, including where they stand today? Can you also tell us how culture and tradition-along with biodiversity-has been lost along with the species’ decline?

Two of the most interesting items, which happen to be in my backyard, are the Apache and Gila trout. Both species, which are from upland areas of the great basin in the southern Rockies, have had competition from brown trout and [have had to contend with] habitat degradation from historic overgrazing.

The Apache tribes in Arizona have collaborated with Trout Unlimited and Arizona Game & Fish and New Mexico Game & Fish to really make a difference in bringing these species back. The caveat, though, is that there are some studies suggesting that climate change is going to increase water temperatures in several of the streams and perhaps in as little as 50 years, these recovered populations of trout won’t be able spawn and breed in these same streams.

Here’s the bittersweet irony. We found the human capacity to collaborate on local ecological restoration but global environmental dilemmas [threaten to] negate it. We can’t get too haughty and say that we recovered something for good. It’s never that simple.

Do you think 300 years from now, people will refer to species we now consider invasive as traditional food species?

That’s entirely possible. We’re going to see a lot of assisted migration of native species. A species may have to move, say 500 meters in elevation because a three-to-five-degree Fahrenheit change over 40 or 50 years will endanger them in their current habitat. We need to make sure that all of the stakeholders involved in ecological restoration understand how to plan for climate change rather than simply hoping it won’t happen.

Is there anything like RAFT in other parts of the world?

There are some remarkable examples in Italy, Oman, and Mexico where government agencies and non-profits are doing full inventories of all their wild and cultivated foods. They typically start with cultivated species, but Mexico is doing both.

We have also had very good cooperation with Canada and Mexico through Slow Food Canada and Conabio which is Mexico’s biodiversity commission.

Frankly, I think the U.S. can learn from other countries that have never shied away from having edible uses as one of the goals of restoration.

Can you give me an example of a place in the world where an abundance of a certain food species, and the cultural aspects with which it is associated, has been successfully maintained?

There is a great variety of examples. Peru has a national park for the potato that protects both wild and cultivated potatoes over a 40,000- hectare landscape above Cuscu in the Andes. Three communities are involved in the management of the park.

There is a variety of modes of land conservation and ecological restoration going on in some countries that is very much tied to the goal of regaining a modicum of food security and not merely for nature conservation for itself. It is also reminding people that they need to maintain these sources in case there is a collapse of the globalized food system.

Fisheries people have done habitat restoration and species recovery in all types of habitats-marine and freshwater-so we really need to pay more attention to how fisheries scientists have managed this in collaboration with community-based stakeholders.

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