Forests, tree foods better option in fight against malnutrition and poverty

Tuesday May 12 2015

Fruit-bearing trees like mangoes, avocados, oranges provide additional food, timber and firewood. PHOTO | FILE

In the face of “peak farmland,” forest and tree foods are emerging as a better, more sustainable source of nutrition and income across the globe. 

A new report released by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) says that the world’s forests have great potential to improve nutrition and fight poverty. In fact, forests and forestry are essential to achieving food security, as the limits of boosting agricultural production are becoming increasingly clear.

International recommendations say that people should eat 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day to stave off diseases.
The report says that in sub-Saharan Africa, consumption of fruits and vegetables is low, with a mean daily intake of between 36 grams and 123 grams in surveyed East African countries; 70 grams and 130 grams in Southern Africa; and 90 grams and 110 grams in West and Central Africa.

Tree foods are often rich sources of vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats and other nutrients.

“Edible leaves of wild African trees such as the baobab and tamarind are high in calcium and are sources of protein and iron. Consumption of only 10 to 20 grams of baobab fruit pulp (or a glass of its juice), for example, covers a child’s daily vitamin C requirement,” says the report.

“The iron contents of dried seeds of the African locust bean and raw cashew nut are comparable with, or even higher than, that of chicken meat.”


However, the nutritional potential of countless other fruits and vegetables remains unknown because they have yet to be quantified. One in nine people globally still suffers from hunger with the majority of the hungry, living in Africa and Asia.

READ: Kenya, Uganda facing severe food insecurity: FAO report

But forest food consumption is increasing in some high-income countries, including Northern Europe, in response to perceptions that food should be locally grown, organic and aesthetic.

In Ethiopia, the inclusion of fruit-bearing trees as shade in coffee plantations provides farmers with access to additional foods, such as mangoes, oranges, bananas and avocados, as well as firewood and timber.

“Large-scale crop production is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which may occur more frequently due to climate change. Science shows that tree-based farming can adapt far better to such calamities,” said Christoph Wildburger, the co-ordinator of IUFRO’s 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.”

Bhaskar Vira of the University of Cambridge and chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Food Security said that forest foods often provide a safety net during periods of food shortages.

The report documents efforts currently underway in Africa and elsewhere to develop new tree commodities to supply the poor with sustainable incomes.

For example, poor farmers in Tanzania are participating in a global effort to produce seeds of the Allanblackia crop, which yields 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 hundreds of millions of dollars annually for local farmers.

In Kenya, for example, the “Education for Sustainable Development” initiative included a “Healthy Learning” programme that targeted schoolchildren and resulted in attitudinal and behavioural changes in communities.

The programme is a collaborative project between the Kenya Ministry of Education, VVOB, the Flemish Association for Development Co-operation and Technical Assistance, and the World Agroforestry Centre.

It aims to develop and implement sustainable strategies for an integrated approach to health for the poorest and most vulnerable primary school students in arid and semi-arid areas. The programme was implemented in 2013.

Counselling to change feeding behaviours is important within the context of culture and knowledge.

The education of men should also not be neglected, since they often have the most control over household incomes, and need to be aware of the importance of diverse cropping systems and the spending of income on healthy foods.

“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 recognise claims over food sovereignty that give local people greater control over their food,” said Dr Vira adding, “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 ensuring the success of sustainable poverty reduction efforts.”

Although forests are not a panacea for global hunger, the report emphasises that they play a vital role in complementing crops produced in 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 food insecurity.

Indeed, the report points out that the expansion of agricultural land accounts for 73 per cent of forest loss worldwide.

The study comes in the lead-up to the United Nations’ finalisation of the Sustainable Development Goals, designed to address, among other global challenges, poverty and hunger. The report also provides useful insights into how the UN can respond to the “Zero Hunger Challenge,” which aims to eliminate global hunger by 2025.

Despite advances in agricultural production globally, approximately one billion people are still chronically hungry, two billion people regularly experience periods of food insecurity and just over a third of humans are affected by micronutrient deficiencies.

Most of the countries with “alarming” Global Hunger Index scores are in sub-Saharan Africa and this region is therefore a particular target for intervention.

While rates of hunger have been falling in many parts of the world, there has been little change in the rates of micronutrient deficiencies.

In particular, deficiencies of iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc, are associated with poor growth and cognitive development in children, and increased mortality and morbidity in both adults and children. Micronutrient deficiencies are often referred to as “hidden hunger,” as they can occur within the context of adequate energy intake, and can be overlooked using traditional measures of food security.

Malnutrition, including under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiency and over-nutrition (obesity and overweight) are developmental challenges.

Rates of obesity are increasing in virtually all regions of the world, affecting 1.4 billion adults globally; so obesity can no longer be viewed only as a disease of affluence.

The burden of over- and under-nutrition on the well-being of people in low-income nations is immense. As such, there have been calls for greater attention to “nutrition-sensitive” agriculture and food systems.