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Forests could help end global hunger, says IUFRO

8 May 2015  •  Author(s): Victoria White

About one in nine people globally still suffer from hunger. The world’s forests have great potential to improve their nutrition and ensure their livelihoods.

IUFRO-insects

In fact, forests and forestry are essential to achieve food security as the limits of boosting agricultural production are becoming increasingly clear.

That’s according to the most comprehensive scientific analysis to date on the relationship among forests, food and nutrition launched today in New York at a side event of the United Nations Forum on Forests. The new report released by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the world’s largest network of forest scientists, also underlines the need for the most vulnerable groups of society to have secure access to forest foods.

More than 60 renowned scientists from around the world collaborated on the peer-reviewed publication “Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition. A Global Assessment Report“, which was coordinated by IUFRO on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF).

IUFRO report demonstrates the vital role of forests in building food security

“This report reminds us of the vital role of forests in building food security. It makes a convincing case for multi-functional and integrated landscape approaches and calls for community level engagement to re-imagine forestry and agriculture systems”, says Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

“Large-scale crop production is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which may occur more frequently under climate change. Science shows that tree-based farming can adapt far better to such calamities.” says Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO’s Global Forest Expert Panels initiative. “We know that forests already play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change. This report makes it very clear that they also play a key role in alleviating hunger and improving nutrition.”

“Forest foods often provide a safety net during periods of food shortages,” says Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge, and the chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Food Security, which compiled the report. “In the study, we reveal impressive examples which show how forests and trees can complement agricultural production and contribute to the income of local people, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world.”

The benefits of forests and trees to nutrition are manifold:

  • Tree foods are often rich in vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients and are associated with more diverse diets.
  • Wild meat, fish, and insects are also important forest food sources. Insects are an especially cheap, abundant source of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Particularly in Southeast Asia, many forests and agroforests (tree-based farms) are managed by local communities specifically to enhance edible insect supply.
  • Forests are also essential for firewood and charcoal. 
  • Trees offer a multitude of ecological services. For instance, they support bees and other pollinators, which are essential for crop production including on farmland.

One in six people directly depend on forests for their food and income

According to the report, close to one out of six persons directly depend on forests for their food and income. Evidence also shows that worldwide the lower the level of prosperity, the higher the share of forests in household incomes.

The IUFRO report documents efforts currently underway in Africa and elsewhere to develop new tree commodities to supply the poor with sustainable incomes. For example, poor producers in Tanzania are engaged in a global effort to produce the seeds of the Allanblackia crop, which yield an edible oil with potential for the global food market. A private-public partnership known as Novella Africa is developing a sustainable Allanblackia oil business that they believe could be worth USD hundreds of millions annually for local farmers.

“What keeps people hungry is often not the lack of food, but the lack of access to that food and control over its production. We need to recognize claims over food sovereignty which give local people greater control over their food,” notes Bhaskar Vira.

Although forests are not a panacea for global hunger, the IUFRO report emphasises that they play a vital role in complementing crops produced on farms. This is especially important when the staple food supply is impaired by droughts, volatile prices, armed conflicts, or other crises. This forest-farm link also means that the loss and degradation of forests exacerbate the problem of food insecurity. Indeed, the report points out that the expansion of agricultural land accounts for 73% of forest loss worldwide.

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