How Forests Can Help to Feed the World

Research shows how forests around the world can help eliminate malnutrition while fighting climate change.

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© Margaret Badore. Two men harvest ramón nuts from the forest floor in Guatemala. Margaret Badore. Two men harvest ramón nuts from the forest floor in Guatemala.

Often, feeding the world’s growing population and protecting natural landscapes are pitted against one another. We know that much of the world’s deforestation, particularly in the tropics, is associated with the expansion of crops like palm oil and soy, as well as cattle and cocoa.

Yet a report from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations shows that forests can play an important role in eliminating hunger and creating more food security. This is important because protecting forests has been identified as a key and cost-effective means of fighting climate change. So, a better understanding of how forests help feed people may be another tool in the arsenal of their defense.

Over a billion people around the world experience chronic hunger, and twice as many suffer from periods of food insecurity. “Unfortunately, there is little current appreciation of the diverse ways in which these tree-based landscapes can supplement agricultural production systems in achieving global food security,” the authors write.

The report examines the nutritional benefits of both natural forests and agro-forests, where food trees are cultivated among other species of trees and are still part of a functioning ecosystem. They find that tree foods can help create more nutritionally balanced diets, particularly for developing areas in the tropics. Seeds, nuts and fruit can be important sources of vitamins and minerals, particularly for communities that are otherwise dependent on starchier staples. Non-tree foods can also add to a wider food portfolio, such as insects, edible greens, fungi and bushmeat.

Forests can give local communities more control over food access, and minimize their vulnerability to fluctuations in global food commodity prices. According to the report, agroforest systems can be more resilient to bad weather conditions than annual crops—which may be increasingly important in the face of climate change.

The authors of the report aren’t claiming that forests alone will feed the world, but say that forest systems can help enhance sustainable agriculture. Forests can provide beneficial ecosystem services, like supporting pollinator species and providing a source of organic material for fertilizer.

It has been established that forest communities that have been given land rights are successful at protecting the forests they depend on, sometimes even better than national governments. But in some areas, communities don’t have the right to access forests and harvest food. So supporting these rights is an important part of the equation.

And the mere presence of edible forest species does not always mean these wild foods are consumed. A lot hinges on local and traditional knowledge. Migration may cause a loss of knowledge about forest foods, while cultural changes may cause certain forest foods to be perceived as less valuable or inefficient.

New processing or preparation techniques can also help forest communities get more use from these foods. For example in Guatemala, new roasting methods allow rainforest communities to store ramón nuts, a traditional food, for years at a time.

As with agriculture, sustainable practices are also important to ensure this food source is available long-term. As we have seen with some types of bushmeat and highly valuable wood types, over-harvesting can threaten a whole species. The good news, the authors say, is that developing forest-based agriculture can actually represent an opportunity in areas where the landscape has already been degraded by human activities. “Working with farmers to combine the best of traditional and formal scientific knowledge offers tremendous potential to enhance the productivity and resilience of these systems."