Cultural constraints, dearth of data limit forests' role in food security

by Angela Dewan | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Tuesday, 28 January 2014 01:14 GMT

Promoting behavioral change to encourage the consumption of foods often considered inferior remains a big challenge, says Barbara Vinceti, a scientist with Biodiversity International. Photo credit: CIFOR/Yayan Indriatmoko

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Promoting behaviour change so people use and consume what are often considered inferior forest foods is one of the biggest challenges

Forests can play a larger role in sustainably feeding a growing global population, but their contribution is hampered by cultural factors and limited data on the nutritional composition of forest food sources, a new review says.

The authors of the review recommend a holistic approach to studying and promoting forest-based foods and their role in “sustainable diets,” a proposed framework to address food security for the world's population, which the U.N. projects will grow to more than 9 billion by 2050, and as climate change puts regular harvest patterns at risk.

A better understanding of forest foods could also reduce pressure to clear-cut forests for agricultural expansion and could help address malnutrition afflicting poor communities.

Forest foods are nutritionally valuable. “Food from the forest offers sources of essential nutrients like iron, vitamin A and zinc — often lacking from diets in developing countries,” said Amy Ickowitz, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), one of the authors of the review as well as other recent research that found a strong correlation between tree cover and child nutrition in areas of Africa.

But whether a community consumes forest foods — from berries, nuts and mushrooms to bushmeat — depends largely upon local trends and practices, according to the review.

“Promoting the necessary behavioral change to use and consume what are often considered inferior foods remains one of the biggest challenges,” said Barbara Vinceti, a scientist with Bioversity International and head author of the review.

In South Africa, for example, most forest foods traded in local markets are valued, and wild resources are generally preferred even when alternative products can be found, according to the review.

But in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, a handful of readily available common berries could provide a child’s daily iron needs but are rarely consumed — despite the fact that an estimated 48 percent to 68 percent of people there are malnourished, with iron among the most common forms of undernutrition, according to Harvest Plus.

The constraints are not only cultural, Vinceti said. A lack of data and metrics on many types of indigenous fruits means there is no accurate measure of the nutrient composition or sustainability of a given food type.

With better data of the nutritional make-up of forest-based foods, combining a “portfolio” of different indigenous fruit tree species for cultivation in agroforestry systems based on the seasonal calendar of fruit harvest time “could result in a year‐round supply of key nutrients,” Vinceti said.

Among the recommendations in the report is that scientists undertake a comparative study of diets reliant on forest foods in indigenous food systems with other types of diets in terms of resilience, health, cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

“The emphasis should increasingly move towards managing the diversity of foods available within heterogeneous landscapes,” Vinceti said.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Amy Ickowitz at

CIFOR’s research on forests and nutrition is part of the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and The Austrian Development Agency.