(Tetun) Consumption of wild food is an important coping strategy in deficit years for poor ‚Äėat risk‚Äô households in Timor-Leste, new research by Seeds of Life has found.

In food insecure years, rural households were significantly more likely to forage for wild foods due to depletion of their grain stocks earlier than in ‚Äėnormal‚Äô years.

In years of food deficit, farming families are more likely to forage for wild foods © Conor Ashleigh/Seeds of Life

Farming families in Timor-Leste are more likely to forage for wild foods in years of food deficit © Conor Ashleigh/Seeds of Life

The research, titled ‚ÄėThe role of wild foods in food security: the example of Timor-Leste‚Äô, was published online in the Food Security journal in December 2014.

Results were based on the comparison of wild food use from three studies:

  1. A longitudinal study of food consumption among 14 subsistence farmer households across four districts in 2006-07
  2. A survey in 2011 of 1,800 farmer households across all 13 districts in Timor-Leste
  3. A survey of 64 households from eight community seed groups in three districts in 2013

The research revealed that the extent of wild food foraging in any year depends on a number of factors: yield of previous crop harvest, household needs, season in which the foraging is carried out, and the type of vegetation/forest cover to support growth of food bearing plants.

The most widely eaten wild plant foods are lesser yam, elephant’s foot yam, bitter bean and sago starch

Results showed that consumption of wild food fluctuated across the year with consumption more likely to occur in the dry season (May-November) than the wet season (December-April).

An elephant foot yam (Maek in Tetun) growing in Ainaro © Sam Bacon/Seeds of Life

An elephant’s foot yam (Maek in Tetun) growing in Ainaro ¬© Sam Bacon/Seeds of Life

In a ‚Äėnormal‚Äô year, 50% of households exhausted their grain store in August and only 9.2% of households consumed wild food. However, in a food deficit year with a severe hungry season, ‚Äúmaize grain stores were typically exhausted two months earlier than in a normal year, and 50% of all interviewed households were foraging for wild food by May‚ÄĚ.

Wild food use also varied across districts due to the major diversity in vegetation. For example, in the 2006-07 survey, Liquica district was found to have twice the number of wild food species foraged than in Aileu, Baucau and Manufahi.

The most widely eaten wild plant foods are lesser yam, elephant’s foot yam, bitter bean and sago starch. Other significant wild foods eaten include tree cassava, tubers of yams, wild taro, tamarind and velvet bean. Consumption of these wild foods often includes the flesh of the tuber, seed, flower, fruit and leaves (refer to table).

Other coping strategies during the hungry months include crop diversification, selling animals and other assets, and using social networks for support.

Looking to the future, the authors state that wild food will continue to be an ‚Äúimportant food buffer in deficit years especially for poor at-risk households, increasing their resilience and reducing their vulnerability‚ÄĚ.

Farmer Angelino Soares Nuno breaks open a wild sesame seed pod in Maliana, Bobonaro © Conor Ashleigh/Seeds of Life

Farmer Angelino Soares Nuno breaks open a wild sesame seed pod in Maliana, Bobonaro © Conor Ashleigh/Seeds of Life

The research was completed by William Erskine, Anita Ximenes, Diana Glazebrook, Marcelino de Jesus da Costa, Modesto Lopes, Luc Spyckerelle, Robert Williams and Harry Nesbitt.

See other journal articles by Seeds of Life.


Wild foods, parts used and preparation as reported by study respondents in longitudinal household consumption study, 2006-07

Wild foods table