Science Matters – Saving the berries for pickers and bears

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola.

One of my favourite summer activities is picking wild blueberries with my family at our cabin in northern B.C. The waning weeks of summer are the best time to be out in the bush, as the berries are ripe and flavourful, in contrast to the sometimes bland-tasting commercial varieties from the grocery store.

Wild-berry harvesting is a Canadian tradition that rural and northern people from Newfoundland to the Yukon share in late August. Wild blueberries have been an important part of the traditional diet of First Nations and Métis for generations, especially in the boreal forest where several varieties, including the lowbush and velvet leaf blueberry, grow well in the acidic and nutrient-poor soils.

According to University of Victoria ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, berry gathering has always been a social activity in aboriginal communities. Family members and friends often set up berry-picking camps, where they will stay for days or even weeks to take advantage of nature’s bounty. Berries are great fresh, but they’re also tasty in jams, jellies, fruit leathers, and pies. They can also be sold commercially, which provides important seasonal income in rural and northern communities.

Our approach to managing the wild lands where these berries grow, such as the boreal forest, leaves something to be desired, though. According to prevailing economic thought, the only value in these areas is in the money we can make from harvesting or extracting resources – most often lucrative timber, oil and gas, or minerals. And so when a natural forest is cleared, we replant it with a single or a few economically desirable tree species of the same age and genetic stock, and then we try to maximize the growth of these species by using toxic chemicals to kill any insects or “competing” plants that would slow them down.

It’s time we started to recognize the significant economic importance of wild blueberries and other native plants – what rural economists call “non-timber forest products”.  For example, economists estimate that the Canadian boreal forest is worth between $261.4 million and $575.1 million a year to aboriginal people for subsistence food alone.

And these foods are increasingly becoming a delicacy for non-northerners. A pint of wild blueberries from Northern Ontario sells for close to eight bucks in the trendy health-food stores of Toronto, where many consumers are motivated not only by the fantastic taste but also by increasing scientific evidence about the health benefits of the fruit.

Harvesting, processing, and selling wild blueberries brings pleasure and profit to many rural and northern communities. It’s distressing that industrial activities such as herbicide spraying by logging companies can kill wild blueberry plants and other vegetation, which are considered competitors for resources needed by the trees, such as light, nutrients, and water.

In Canada, the most popular herbicide for this purpose is Vision, produced by agri-chemical giant Monsanto. This column’s co-author, David Suzuki Foundation science director Faisal Moola, has studied the impacts of Vision herbicide on wild blueberry plants, and has published research showing that chemical spraying harms the plants, reducing the amount of berries available for people and wildlife like bears and birds.

Logging companies typically spray the herbicide in mid to late summer, which is when the berries are ripe. Because of this, wildlife and berry-pickers may also be accidentally exposed to chemical residues when they eat contaminated fruit (even though warnings must be posted when areas are sprayed).

Scientific debate over whether Vision poses a serious risk to human and wildlife health is ongoing. Still, some indigenous and local people have expressed concerns that chemical spraying could make the berries less healthy and are therefore reluctant to eat them.

This indirect consequence of spraying herbicides in our managed forestlands concerns us. Wild berries are a free, healthy, and traditional source of nutrition for northern communities. If fears about toxicity, real or perceived, keep people from eating berries or the animals that graze on them, the consequences will be serious for people who are already ravaged by a western diet of too much sugar, salt, and fat.

We should do everything we can to encourage people to eat safe and nutritious “traditional country foods”, such as wild blueberries and other plants and resources of the forest (including wild fish and game). We must protect the traditional foods of First Nations and others who live off the land from the damage that industrial activities can cause.

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