Missing Wild and Cultivated Environments in Food Environment Measures

By Selena Ahmed and Anna Herforth
From our field work and food environment assessments in rural and indigenous communities around the world, we have come to recognize the critical role of wild and cultivated biodiversity and subsistence foods in supporting food security, dietary quality, and cultural identity. Yet, when reviewing the literature on food environments, we notice a major gap regarding the dietary contribution of wild and cultivated food environments (Figure 1) that include subsistence foods procured from forests, home gardens, fields, pasture, and other agricultural systems (Figure 2).


Figure 1  
a. Wild food environment (forests and agro-forests)
 Photo credit: Selena Ahmed
b. Cultivated food environment (home gardens)
 Photo credit: Selena Ahmed


Of the over 500 measures identified that explicitly categorize themselves as food environment measures, we found that less than a dozen of existing metrics directly take into account wild and cultivated food environments (Herforth and Ahmed 2015). Rather, food environment metrics most often solely focus on the market (retail or built) food environment that includes grocery stores, restaurants, schools, workplaces, farmers’ markets and other market systems (Figure 2).

Figure 2


The lack of wild and cultivated food environment measures is probably in large part due to the fact that most food environment measures have been developed in the context of the U.S. and Europe, where wild-gathered and home-produced foods make a relatively small contribution to diets. There is a major need to expand food environment research and metrics globally, to include rural, indigenous and low-income agricultural settings towards supporting healthy food choices (Turner et al. 2017, Herforth and Ahmed 2015).
A majority of the world still relies on subsistence foods from their natural surroundings for food security and nutrition. Akha communities in the uplands of Yunnan Province in southwestern China, where we have been assessing dietary patterns for a decade, manage a complex mosaic of land-use types including over 10 land-use types dedicated to the procurement of food from forests, home gardens, agroforests, orchards, crop fields, grazing lands and terraced paddies (Ahmed et al. 2010; Figure 3). Some of these households manage over 100 edible crop varieties in their home gardens and have ecological knowledge of over 150 wild foods in their surroundings that they regularly incorporate into diets (Ahmed et al. 2013). In sub-Saharan Africa, a majority of households are smallholder farmers, sourcing at least part of their dietary intake from home production as well as wild food collection (Figure 4). 
The wild and cultivated food environment is also important in high-income countries. Urban agriculture in the form of community gardens and green roofs is increasingly contributing to food security. American Indian and rural communities in Montana rely on hunting and harvesting of edible plants such as a range of berries for cultural identity, family ties to previous generations, and for their health benefits (Byker Shanks et al. 2015).
Given that most people around the world obtain at least some of their food through non-market means, subsistence wild and cultivated food sources need to be taken into account in measuring the food environment. Luckily, existing metrics from various disciplines can be adapted to design metrics of wild and cultivated food environments. In particular, the field of ethnobotany (and associated fields of ethnoecology, ethnobiology and ethnomedicine) has championed methodological approaches on documenting wild and cultivated edible plants for diets and human wellbeing (Powell et al. 2015). The creation of metrics bridging diverse fields has been shown to be effective in assessing diets such as the Nutritional Functional Diversity score that was developed by ecologists to describe the contribution of biodiversity to sustainable diets (Luckett et al. 2015).
Figure 3  Figure 4
 Wild and cultivated food environments, Yunnan, China
 Photo credit: Selena Ahmed
 Smallholder farmers in Kenya in a plot intercropped with vegetables
 and fruits,including wild and semi-wild indigenous leafy vegetables
 Photo credit: Anna Herforth


We can thus integrate the theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches from ethnobotanical studies on documenting wild and cultivated biodiversity with a food environment framework. Such an approach would require modification of the existing market food environment framework that assesses availability, affordability, convenience and desirability. In particular, this would involve inclusion of only those components of the market food environment relevant for subsistence procurement of wild and cultivated foods, namely availability, convenience and desirability. In addition, it would include components specifically suitable for measuring wild and cultivated diversity (Figure 5).
Figure 5

Application of metrics of both market and wild and cultivated food environments would allow a more accurate understanding of food access. The development of measures to assess wild and cultivated food environments would be particularly relevant for designing and evaluating agricultural-nutrition interventions, especially in international and rural contexts. Ultimately, measuring wild and cultivated food environments has the potential to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and its integral role for diets and human wellbeing.


Written by Selena Ahmed1 and Anna Herforth2*
1 The Food and Health Lab at Montana State University
2 Columbia University  
*Corresponding Author




The development of these ideas have been supported by research funded by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF RII Track-2 FEC 1632810 and NSF CNH BCS-1313775) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (Award Number P20GM103474). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the US National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

  1. Ahmed, S.; Stepp, J.R.; Toleno, R.; Peters, C.M. 2010. Increased Market Integration, Value, and Ecological Knowledge of Tea Agro-forests in the Akha Highlands of Southwest China. Ecology and Society. 15 (4): 2
  2. Ahmed, S.; Peters, C.M.; Chunlin, L.; Meyer, R.; Unachukwu, U.; Litt, A.; Kennelly, E.; Stepp, J.R. 2013. Biodiversity and Phytochemical Quality in Indigenous and State-Supported Tea Management Systems of Yunnan, China. Conservation Letters. 5 (6): 28-36
  3. Powell, B, S Haraksingh Thilsted, A Ickowizt, C Termote, T Sunderland and A Herforth. 2015. Improving Diets with Wild and Cultivated Biodiversity from Across the Landscape. Food Security 7(3): 535-554.
  4. Byker Shanks, C.; Smith, T.; Ahmed, S.; Hunts, H. 2015. Assessing Foods Offered in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) Using Healthy Eating Index-2010. Public Health Nutrition  doi:10.1017/S1368980015002359
  5. Luckett BG, DeClerck FAJ, Fanzo J, Mundorf AR, Rose D. Application of the Nutritional Functional Diversity Indicator to Assess Food Systems Contribution to Dietary Diversity and Sustainable Diets of Malawian Households. Public Health Nutr. 2015; 18: 2479–2487. doi: 10.1017/S136898001500169X. pmid:26027595
  6. Turner, C., Kadiyala, S., Aggarwal, A., Coates, J., Drewnowski, A., Hawkes, C., Herforth, A., Kalamatianou, S., Walls, H. (2017). Concepts and Methods for Food Environment Research in Low and Middle Income Countries. Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Food Environments Working Group (ANH-FEWG). Innovative Methods and Metrics for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions (IMMANA) programme. London, UK.

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