Friday, 17 July 2015

Friday Fungus: wild mushrooms and the tragedy of the commons

You've got dressed up, hired a cab and are safely seated in that special restaurant for your special occasion. Scanning down the menu your eyes fall on a "mosaic of chicken, wild mushrooms and pistachio nuts - an elegant combination of woody, autumnal flavours packed into a chunky terrine". If you're me, you leap as the prospect of wild mushrooms and place the order for your starter. What you don't do is ask how those wild mushrooms arrived at a posh restaurant in Ilkley. Perhaps it's time to start asking - for the sake of our woodlands and for the sake of us continuing to enjoy the fabulous flavours of those wild mushrooms blessing our palettes.

We're familiar with the tragedy of the commons (although it is often misrepresented):

...each human exploiter of the common was guided by self-interest. At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined.

So it is with wild foraging for mushrooms.

The New Forest Association (NFA) says there's growing anger over "commercial gangs" invading and filching fungi to flog to posh hotels and restaurants in back-door deals.

Experts have warned the gangs could even kill because pickers who don't know the different species are likely to take deadly toadstools and other poisonous fungi in mistake for edible and safe mushrooms.

Forestry Commission bosses have now vowed to "disrupt" commercial pickers plundering this autumn's crop - but campaigners are demanding an outright ban.

This same story is repeated across our woodlands - from Epping Forest to Ogden Water you'll see evidence of large scale mushroom gathering. How else did you think all those wild mushrooms arrived in all those restaurants? And the easy result of authorities is to introduce a ban:

Authorities in London's Epping Forest have been stopping and searching walkers in an attempt to catch foragers who are stripping the woodland of fungi.

Forest keepers are trying to crack down on the harmful practice after gangs of foragers descended on the woodland in vans to cart away hauls of mushrooms which are then sold to restaurants.

The plants can fetch up to £50 per kilo as the trend for foraged food in upmarket restaurants in London and around the country has sent demand soaring.

The problem is that, as we know too well, a ban would simply drive up the price and make it worth the while to carry on foraging (the downside risk is probably pretty small). Even if we banned restaurants from selling wild mushrooms - imagine the foodie cries of pain - there's still be a market at the restaurant backdoor at an even higher price.

Instead of banning foraging would it not be more sensible (and lucrative) for places like Epping Forest and the New Forest to auction off the rights to crop the mushrooms? Trust me, if you've forked out thousands of quid for something you'll be making really sure people don't arrive and steal it from you. The owners of the rights would back up the local keepers and wardens to stop the poaching of fungi - we'd have an industry interested in a sustainable product rather than a collection of uncontrolled exploiters of common rights.

Despite this, I'll bet you that the choices of authorities will be the ban not the licence.

1 comment:

Trofim said...

England is simply overpopulated. Overpopulation is at the heart of many of our social and economic problems. In eastern Europe people gather as much as they want without detriment to the environment. Poland, e.g, has a population density less than a third of England. In Russia, of course, whole trains leave Russian cities in season especially for fungus pickers. In eastern Europe people go out angling in order to eat the fish, often on the spot on a fire. You can't do that here.