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Wild edible plants take centre stage in Turkey plant and food festival

The colours, smells and tastes of wild food diversity dominated the stalls of vegetable and wild herb sellers at the 6th edition of the Alaçatı Herb Festival in Western Turkey. Teresa Borelli, Programme Specialist, Nutrition and Marketing Diversity reports.

The colours, smells and tastes of wild food diversity dominated the stalls of vegetable and wild herb sellers from all over the Aegean Region at the 6th edition of the Alaçatı Herb Festival in Western Turkey. Teresa Borelli, Programme Specialist, Nutrition and Marketing Diversity reports.

This four-day plant and food festival - in which wild edibles take centre stage - is rapidly becoming one of the most popular events in this corner of the country.

Despite the heavy rain, a record number of visitors came along, eager to taste the enormous variety of böreks (home-baked pastries filled with all manners of greens), dolma (vine and other leaf wrappings) and soups and jams made from fruits, vegetables and flowers. There were also cooking workshops, food tastings and visits to demonstration and conservation plots.

The festival represents a first-rate opportunity for the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Initiative (BFN)* which is coordinated by Bioversity International, and firmly embedded in our vision that agricultural biodiversity nourishes people and sustains the planet.

Since 2014 BFN, which promotes the conservation and use of both wild and cultivated crop and tree biodiversity as a cost-effective solution to malnutrition, has officially partnered with the Alaçatı Art and Culture Association to support the region’s age-old tradition of using wild edible plants as well as the local cuisines and food cultures based on this biodiversity.

Many of these edible plants are weedy species that grow on roadsides and in marginal lands but they are rapidly disappearing due to environmental pressures. Also disappearing is the traditional knowledge associated with their identification, collection and use and the festival represents a key entry point for BFN Turkey to raise awareness on the importance of safeguarding these species both for their nutritional and cultural value.

Dr Ayfer Tan of the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute, a member of the scientific committee, coordinates much of the BFN work in this part of Turkey, explained why these festivals are important: “When people are aware of the nutritional benefits of these plants they become more aware of their importance, so Alaçatı is an extraordinary way to get the message across. However, knowledge of the sustainable collection of these species is essential and this is something that we have also been teaching people”.

Winner of Alacati Herb festival. Credit: Bioversity International/S. LanderszAs part of the festival, a wild herb collector’s competition was organized rewarding the gatherer of the highest number of edible plants. Contestants were asked to identify and provide the food use for each plant, helping the jury’s scientific committee gather additional information on each species. For example, in this part of Turkey, some are consumed as food in salads, fried or roasted, while others are used for their medicinal properties.

The winner of the wild herb collection competition, Ms. Nuran Erdem, had gathered no less than 104 plant species which she proudly displayed. “Some were not in season otherwise there could have been more”, she said. I also learnt through Ms. Erdem that one of the weeds that I’m constantly trying to eradicate from my garden – Pellitory-of-the-wall – is used to make a medicinal tea and that the roots of common golden thistle are edible. The plant, which has since become a favourite of mine, luckily grows abundant in my local park.

Food festivals and gastronomic events promoting local biodiversity are proving equally successful in the three other partner countries to BFN – Brazil, Kenya and Sri Lanka. Food festivals such as the one organized in Alaçatı have the potential to ignite people’s pride and lead to cultural re-affirmation, encouraging communities to continue their roles as custodians of biodiversity. Here, like in many parts of the world, the involvement of famous chefs to transform local ingredients and adapt them to modern tastes has resulted in many previously neglected foods now promoted and sold by farmers and consumed in urban areas.

Careful to avoid over-exploitation of these species, BFN Turkey is also actively engaged in the domestication of these plants. Dr Isa Özkan, BFN national project coordinator in Turkey has recently confirmed that seeds of domesticated golden thistle will be distributed to farmers in Alaçatı to be grown and relieve pressure on the wild populations.

Learn more about the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Initiative here or contact Teresa Borelli for more information.

*Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the 'Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Initiative', led by Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey, promotes the conservation and use of local crop and tree biodiversity as a cost-effective solution to malnutrition, building marketing opportunities, value chains, policies and nutrition strategies. The initiative is coordinated by Bioversity International. The United Nations Environment Programme and FAO are the implementation agencies.

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