On Apps and A.I. in Foraging

Okay, y’all, it’s rant time again. Buckle up. A new report just came out from Public Citizen highlighting the dangers of using apps and AI foraging guides for identifying mushrooms, particularly when mushroom foraging. It’s the latest in a string of warnings that are fighting against a tide of purported convenience (“just take a picture and get your answer instantly!”) An umbrella-shaped white mushroom with a yellowish tiny grows out of a layer of dry, brown leaf litter in a forest for article on A.I. in ForagingI’ve ranted about this since last August, and I also wrote up a detailed post on how to identify an AI-generated foraging guide. I’m also including info on the limitations of apps and AI in The Everyday Naturalist: How to Identify Animals, Plants, and Fungi Wherever You Go. I’m not just saying this to toot my own horn–it’s because nature identification, and teaching it to others, is literally what I do for a living. So this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I teach a very, very specific sort of identification class; whether we’re focusing on animals, plants, fungi, or all of the above, I walk people through a detailed process of how to observe a given organism, make note of its various physical traits and habitat, and use that information to try to determine what it is. I emphasize the need to use as many sources as possible–field guides, websites, online and in-person groups, journal articles, etc.–to make absolutely sure that your identification is solid. And every year, I get people (thankfully, a very small minority of my students) who complain because my two-hour basic mushroom hunting class wasn’t just five minutes of introduction and one hundred and fifteen minutes of me showing slide after slide of edible mushrooms. There are so many people out there who just want a quick, easy answer so they can frolic in the woods and blithely pick mushrooms like some idealized image of a cottagecore herbalist with a cabin full of dried plants and smiling frogs or something. While I do incorporate a bit of information on getting started with the app iNaturalist in my classes, it is as only ONE of MANY tools I encourage people to use. Sure, it’s more solid than most apps because, in addition to the algorithmic I.D. suggestions it initially gives you, other iNaturalist users can go onto your observations later and either agree with your I.D.s or suggest something different and even explain why. And yet–even as great as iNat is, it and its users can still be wrong. So can every other I.D. app out there. And I think that is one thing that the hyper-romanticized approaches to foraging–and nature identification in general–miss. In order to be a good forager, you HAVE to also be good at nature identification. Botanist Carolyn Wells (USFWS) examines South Appalachian bog plants; image used in article on A.I. and foraging.And nature identification is an entire process that requires you to have solid observational and critical thinking skills, to be able to independently research using many different types of tools, and be willing to invest the time, patience, and focus to properly arrive at a solid identification–if not to species level, then as far down the taxonomic ladder as you can realistically manage. (There’s a reason even the experts complain about Little Brown Mushrooms and Damned Yellow Composites!) People mistake one single tool–apps–for the entire toolkit. They assume any book they find on Amazon is going to be as good as any other, and don’t take the time to look up the author to determine any credentials or experience, or even whether they actually exist or not. It doesn’t help that the creators of these products often advertise them as “the only [book/app/etc.] you need to easily identify [organism of choice]!” I mean, sure, the world isn’t going to end if you never question the birdsong results on the Merlin app, or if you go through life thinking a deer fern is just a baby western sword fern. But when we get into people actually eating things they find in the wild, there’s often no room for error. There are plants and mushrooms that can kill you even if you only eat a tiny amount. And even if they don’t kill you, they may make you wish you were dead for a few days while you suffer through a whole host of gastrointestinal nastiness and other symptoms. There aren’t any shortcuts if you want to be safe in your foraging. You HAVE to be willing to do the work. And any teacher, author, or product that says otherwise isn’t being ethical. I’m glad to see more people speaking out against the “fast foodization” of foraging in regards to overreliance on apps and the existence of AI foraging books; I just hope it’s enough to prevent more people from getting sick or dying.

Did you enjoy this post? Consider taking one of my online foraging and natural history classes or hiring me for a guided nature tour, checking out my other articles, or picking up a paperback or ebook I’ve written! You can even buy me a coffee here!

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