Can Forests Help Fight Global Hunger?

A child’s daily requirement for vitamin A can be met by around 25 g of a deep orange-fleshed mango variety. Photo: Terry Sunderland
A child’s daily requirement for vitamin A can be met by around 25 g of a deep orange-fleshed mango variety. Photo: Terry Sunderland

Currently 805 million people are undernourished worldwide.  That number is based on a number of factors including chronic and systemic poverty, a lack of access to improved growing methods and resources for small-holder farmers, a lack of purchasing power, as well as a lack of highly nutritious foods.

Researchers believe forests can help remedy the hunger problem worldwide. Even though 61.3 percent of the world’s forests are wholly owned by individual governments, that is a sharp decline from 71.4 percent in 2002 according to the newly-released report, Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition [PDF].

Over 60 forest scientists contributed to the new report which outlines the best ways in which available forestland can be utilized to curb hunger. The first way is via tree crops that are often rich in vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients and are associated with more diverse diets. Examples include cashews and the African locust bean.

Forests also are conducive for finding and harvesting insects (popular in Southeast Asia), fish and wild meats. Forests are important for firewood (when used sustainably by households) as well as for pollinators such as bees that improve traditional vegetable and fruit crops.

“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 the Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) 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.”

The scientists also argue that forests can provide a source of income for impoverished communities. For example, in Tanzania, forest farmers are producing allanblackia oil, an edible oil used in margarines and spreads, that has found a profitable export market.

“Our partnership has pursued allanblackia not as another wonder-crop promising to save Africa, but as a model for how to build a sustainable value chain based on local resources, local input, and with clear benefits to local communities, the climate, and consumers around the world,” said Chris Buss, Deputy Director, Global Forest and Climate Change Programme at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “This product launch is a major milestone for sustainable allanblackia oil.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are creating forest farms that improve degraded land and make it more agriculturally viable. Planting fast-growing acacia trees make deep roots and improves soil quality. These trees also keep wildlife and harsh winds from damaging farm plots. These new forest farms produce fruit trees, tree crops, as well as better soil on which to grow vegetable crops.

“What keeps people hungry is often not the lack of food, but the lack of access to that food and control over its production,” said Bhaskar Vira, University of Cambridge, and the chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Food Security.

“We need to recognize claims over food sovereignty which give local people greater control over their food,” notes Bhaskar Vira. “Improved tenure rights and stronger rights for women who are becoming more and more responsible for food production from agricultural and forest lands are key to ensure the success of sustainable poverty reduction efforts.”

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