Forests Can Feed Billions, but Only If They’re Left Standing

Researchers find that making woodlands part of the food supply will help alleviate hunger worldwide.
May 6, 2015
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Growing more food for the globe’s rising population is the major driver of deforestation. But a new report, endorsed by dozens of forest scientists, has found that leaving those trees standing would do much more to curb hunger than would converting them to cropland or pastures.

More than 1 billion people worldwide already depend on forests for food and crucial nutrients, according to the report, which was published Wednesday by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations.

For communities in Machakos County in eastern Kenya, the report stated, forest tree fruits such as pawpaws, mangoes, and loquats are major sources of vitamin A, and guava is a source of vitamin C.

The wild animals, fish, and insects in forests are also important sources of protein, iron, and fats. In the Rio Negro area of Brazil’s Amazon, the report noted, communities obtained 70 percent of their protein from fish caught in flooded forests and rivers.

Healthy forests also help communities withstand changing climate conditions, civil unrest, and shifting food prices, according to the researchers.

Although tree crops such as rubber, palm oil, and coffee are worth tens of billions of dollars a year in international trade, the report warned that razing natural forests and replacing them with tree crop plantations does not help reduce hunger. Instead, tree crop plantations increase food insecurity by wiping out local sources of food and eradicating agricultural as well as natural biodiversity.

There is little evidence for the “land sparing” argument that such plantations save forests by producing their crops more efficiently, the report noted. But there is a great deal of evidence that “land sharing,” or managing the land for multiple uses and biodiversity, can increase the supply of forest foods and support animal species that are important to agriculture, such as the birds, bats, and bees that pollinate crops.

But unless governments integrate forests into their national food policies and international agreements, these benefits are all but invisible.

The report made several recommendations for ways that political leaders could “reimagine forests and food security.” Governments need to restore degraded forests to healthy biodiversity to increase their forest food supplies. They can also “target” particular forest foods for “improved harvest and/or cultivation”—in essence, putting more effort into managing which foods grow in forests. Better education on nutrition, particularly for women and children, can also help communities improve how they gather and manage forest-based foods.

Economic policies and programs must also help communities develop income from forest-related foods and other products, the researchers said.

“We know that forests already play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change,” Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO’s Global Forest Expert Panels initiative, said in a statement. “This report makes it very clear that they also play a key role in alleviating hunger and improving nutrition.”

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