The role of forests in global food security

The expansion of agriculture increases the risk of deforestation, which will not only have a negative impact on climate change mitigation, but also diminish food security for millions of desperately poor people. This report looks at the link between food security and forest ecosystems.

The role of forests in global food security
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The world’s poorest people are generally more dependent on forest biodiversity and ecosystem services than are people who are better off. In low- and middle-income countries, human populations tend to be low in areas with high forest cover and high forest biodiversity, but poverty rates in these areas tend to be high.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that 252 million people living in forests and savannas have an income of less than US$1,25 [about R19,19] a day. Overall, about 63% of these rural poor live in Africa, 34% in Asia and 3% in Latin America.

Understanding the relationship between poverty and forest landscapes is crucial to global efforts to fight poverty and conserve biodiversity.

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On the one hand, poverty reduction and income growth can increase the demand for land-intensive goods and production, and intensify people’s desire to convert forest to pasture, cropland and living space. On the other hand, rising income can change occupational patterns away from land-intensive production, increase the demand for recreation and environmental quality, and strengthen people’s ability and willingness to conserve nature.

The impact of these forces are shaped by institutions and policies.

Forests contribute to food security in several ways:

Availability (actual/potential presence of food)
Approximately one billion people depend to some extent on wild foods such as game meat, edible insects, edible plant products, mushrooms and fish. Some studies indicate that in developing countries, these households tend to have the lowest incomes.

Although foods from forests have been estimated to represent less than 0,6% of global consumption, they are key to ensuring the availability of nutrient-dense foods and important vitamins and trace elements in many communities. Forests and trees outside forests also support food availability by providing fodder for livestock. Fodder thus contributes to food availability in two ways: livestock are a source of meat and milk, and they support agricultural production by providing draught power and manure, which can increase farm productivity.

Forests and their biodiversity also provide foods that contribute a wide range of macro- and micronutrients. Wild foods often contain high levels of key micronutrients. Forest fruits, for example, are rich sources of minerals and vitamins, while seeds and nuts harvested in the forest add calories, oil and protein to diets.

Wild edible roots and tubers serve as sources of carbohydrate, while mushrooms contain important nutrients, including selenium, potassium and vitamins. Leaves from trees and shrubs are among the most widely consumed forest products.

They serve as a rich source of protein and micronutrients, including vitamin A, calcium and iron, which are often lacking in the diets of nutritionally vulnerable communities. Moreover, most of the global supply of vitamins C and A and calcium, and much of the folic acid, comes from crops pollinated by animals.

Stability of food supply
Income and wild foods from forests provide a safety net during seasonal food shortages and in times of famine, crop failure and economic, social and political shocks.

Forest products are often available for extended periods, including during ‘lean’ seasons, when stocks of traditional agricultural products have run out and when money is in short supply.

In addition to providing measures for coping with short-term instability in food supplies, which can lead to acute food insecurity, forests and forest diversity provide ecosystem services for ensuring medium- to long-term stability of food supplies, which can prevent chronic food insecurity.

Part of this is through their support to sustainable agricultural, livestock and fishery production. Forests are crucial for maintaining biodiversity as a gene pool for food and medicinal crops in order to ensure long-term quality of diets.

Forest foods
Forest foods form a small (in terms of calories) but critical part of diets commonly consumed by rural, food-insecure populations. They also add variety to predominantly staple diets. In some communities that consume high levels of forest food, wild forest foods alone are sufficient to meet minimum dietary requirements for fruits, vegetables and animal-source foods.

The value of forest foods as a nutritional resource is not limited to the developing world. More than 65 million people in the EU collect wild foods occasionally and at least 100 million consume edible forest products.

Wild foods, particularly wild game and other forest products, are also commonly eaten in North America, and some are widely traded. The global market for edible mushrooms, for example, many of which are collected from forests, is estimated to be worth US$42 billion [R645 billion] a year.

Forest foods are of particular nutritional (and cultural) importance to indigenous communities. A study of 22 countries in Asia and Africa, both industrialised and developing, found that the average indigenous community uses 120 wild foods.

Nuts are among the most nutritionally concentrated of human foods, being high in protein, oil, energy, minerals and vitamins. The annual production of nuts that originate primarily or exclusively from forests is substantial in many countries.

Some nuts support subsistence for rural communities and forest dwellers, while others, such as the Brazil nut, are of considerable commercial importance. Trees and shrubs bearing edible nuts are often left standing on farmlands and homesteads after land clearance.

Wild meat
Redmond et al listed close to 1 800 species of insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles used as wild meat around the world, many of them in tropical and subtropical forests.

Given that only 45% of these (around 800) were insects and that fish and shellfish were not included, the total number of forest animals hunted for food is likely to be significantly higher.

In rural forest communities and small provincial towns where cheap, domestic meat is largely unavailable but people have access to wildlife, wild meat is often the main source of macronutrients, such as protein and fat, and important micronutrients, such as iron and zinc.

A recent survey of almost 8 000 rural households in 24 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America found that 39% of households harvested wild meat and almost all consumed it.

Wild meat accounts for at least 20% of animal protein in rural diets in at least 62 countries worldwide. Wild meat can be a particularly important source of protein, fat and micronutrients when other foods become unavailable, such as during economic hardship, civil unrest or drought.

The sale of wild meat in urban centres could also be a source of income diversification for hunting communities, notably in areas where protein from domestic livestock is scarce or expensive.

Similarly, trade in other wildlife products, such as hides as a by-product of harvesting animals for meat, can also provide a source of cash income for forest communities.

It is estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people. More than 1 900 species have been used as food, with beetles (Coleoptera) representing 31% of the species consumed, caterpillars (Lepidoptera) representing 18% of the species consumed, and bees, wasps, and ants (Hymenoptera) representing 14% of the species consumed.

Rearing insects for food and feed is being explored as a way to alleviate pressure on wild populations and bolster food security on a larger scale. Countries such as Kenya and Uganda have successfully established cricket and grasshopper farming models.

A healthier planet
Forest and agricultural production systems often overlap (sometimes completely, as in agroforestry). Around 40% of global agricultural land has more than 10% tree cover.
Forests have far higher levels of plant and animal biodiversity than agricultural fields.

This helps improve the productivity and resilience of agricultural production systems located near forests. Forests are also crucial to water supply: an estimated 75% of the world’s accessible fresh water comes from forested watersheds.

Forests play an essential role in mitigating climate change, thus contributing to prevention of climate-related food insecurity.

Sustainably managed forest ecosystems can also help minimise the likelihood of agricultural losses from soil erosion, landslides and floods.

Finally, forests provide farmers with a local supply of agricultural inputs, such as fodder, fibre and organic matter, reducing the cost, financially and environmentally, of producing and transporting such inputs from more distant locations.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

This report is an extract of ‘The State of the World’s Forests 2020. Forests, biodiversity and people’, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.