Q+A: Committee on World Food Security chair urges use of forest foods in diets

by Julie Mollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Tuesday, 21 May 2013 13:32 GMT

“This meeting is special to me because it is covering aspects of forestry that will give us working materials,” said Yaya Olaniran, chair of the Committee on World Food Security. Photo courtesy of CIFOR/Julie Mollins.

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Governments must ensure food security is top of the development agenda as global population expands from 7 billion to a projected 9 billion people by 2050, the chair of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) told Forests News at a conference in Rome.

“We must go back to basics, let governments take responsibility for what should be done and also have a timeline and agreed methodology of assessment,” Yaya Olaniran said.

“This meeting is special to me because it is covering aspects of forestry that will give us working materials,” he said, adding that “Forests are an aspect of food security that has been lacking for some time.”

The CFS is a U.N. intergovernmental body established in 1974 to work with stakeholders to ensure food security and nutrition for all.

Recent estimates from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that around 1.6 billion people rely on forests and other natural systems in some way for their diets, health and wider livelihoods.

In 2012, U.N. food agencies estimated that at least 870 million people go hungry and that more than 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger.”

At least 1.4 billion people are obese, overweight, many suffering from such related non-communicable diseases as diabetes and heart problems.

Olaniran shared his views on the role forest foods can play in improving food security and nutrition.

Q: What is the Committee on World Food Security’s specific interest in theInternational Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition?

A: “To me, this is an additional aspect of food security that has been lacking for some time. We’ve been looking at food security from different perspectives . . . and the effects that both nutrient deficiency and overnutrition have caused. As it turns out, we are grappling with an almost equal proportion — a billion people each way. There should be a more concerted effort to reduce the number — 875 million people — in starvation.

“The aspect that really really interests me, and I think it really important for the Committee of World Food Security, is the diversity that the forests produce. Particularly the non-timber products, which are a source of food for many people that live in the forests: indigenous people, even people who are just interested in forests, the forest community . . . There are fruits that are indigenous for the people that solves most of their nutritional needs. Particularly in the area of micronutrients.

Moringa grows in my part of the world — it’s a shrub. What is known and well documented is that the area of nutrient deficiency is the same belt is the same belt of moringa growth. Moringa has about 14 times more vitamin A than carrots, 10 times more calcium than milk. There are other crops like that in the forest that have high nutritional value.”

Q: Why are there so many malnourished people in the world?

A: “My guess is this . . . the people (don’t always) use the local materials that are available to them. They may know (about it) but unfortunately in the developing world what you have, you don’t always value. By the same extension, you don’t also talk of imported food. Most of the imported food and drink is junk. The natural food that the people themselves have cultivated are not being fully utilized. That is one aspect of why I’m here. The other aspect is to find the balance between agriculture and forestry — do we preserve our forests and get less food, or pull down the forests and destroy biodiversity? The dialogue has now started.”

Q: It seems nobody is eating a healthy diet. How do you balance this?

A: “You start with wheat, maize, rice — the staples — but there are 7,000 other crops that have carbohydrate basis, ranging from tubers, yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, plantain. And of course there are lots and lots of trees that produce carbohydrates. If people are allowed to eat these foods, they will eat healthier diets. They are always harvested in a sustainable way, there are little or no pesticides used. There are lots of protein sources that are available in the forests — the pupae, the larvae of so many insects.”

Q: What does it take to make this happen?

A: “First, how do we stop people from chopping down forests, and how do we get people to think beyond wheat, rice and maize as staples? It is the responsibility of governments, researchers, agroforestry. We need to improve governance, and politicians themselves need to be convinced and committed. The other aspect is there should be peer review mechanisms. The G8 and G20 have an ear for their colleagues in developing countries . . . We need to improve the efficiency of delivery — so that more and more people will see benefits of every dollar being spent.”

Q: Food security concerns are also in the news as the world counts down to 2015, the year the 2000 U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of hungry people in the world must be met. What about the post-2015 agenda? Is there a role for forests? Should there be an Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) just for forest foods?

A: “It would be very, very difficult to get because of interest in other things. Different actions (for the MDGs) were not assigned specifically and accountability was not assigned to someone — who do you hold accountable for outcomes? I think that the lessons learned from the MDGs should help with the SDGs. In other words, Go back to basics, let governments take responsibility over what should be done (in terms of a development framework) and also have a timeline and agreed methodology of assessment.  (We need to) go to the grassroots and speak with the people and figure out what they want to do and how they want to do this — I’m talking about local people, villagers, communities. We need to bring them together to fashion out what they think is best for them. Funding should not be a problem if corruption can be tackled head on — every country in the world has enough.”