Tracking genetic resources key to future role of forests

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research)
Wednesday, 2 July 2014 20:55 GMT

In the Unamat forest, Puerto Maldonado, Madre de Dios, Peru. CIFOR/Marco Simola

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CIFOR — Strategic planning is vital to ensure the conservation and sustainability of the vast genetic resources found in forests to meet current and future food security challenges and alleviate global poverty, experts say.

At least half of all regularly used forest species are threatened or subject to genetic erosion by the conversion of forests to pastures, farmland, over-exploitation and climate change, according to a new report under discussion by the Committee on Forestry, which met last week in Rome for World Forest Week.

The report titled “The State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources”, produced by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), proposes that systematic data gathering will aid governments as they design national policies to improve food production and ecosystem management.

“FAO supports the effective implementation of the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation, Sustainable Use and Development of Forest Genetic Resources,” said Albert Nikiema, a forestry officer with FAO, urging countries to craft protective policies at the regional, national and international level.

Forests cover almost 30 percent of global land area and host most land-based biodiversity, according to FAO statistics. They provide wood and other forest products, including water supplies and medicines. They offer ecosystem stability, carbon storage and other key services supporting livelihoods.

About 80 percent of people in developing countries use non-wood forest products for income, nutritional and health needs, FAO reports. In developing countries, wood-based fuels are the main source of energy for more than 2 billion poor people. In Africa more than 90 percent of harvested wood is used for energy.

The contribution of forests and trees to global food security, poverty alleviation and sustainable development depends on the availability of rich diversity between and within tree species, the report says.

Such diversity is needed to ensure that forest trees can survive, adapt and evolve under changing environmental conditions, it says, adding that genetic diversity preserves the vitality of forests and bolsters resilience to pests and diseases.

The Global Plan of Action aims to not only improve forest management, but to help countries achieve targets set out in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which will be replaced when they expire in 2015 by the Sustainable Development Goals currently under discussion.

The FAO report covers the 8,000 species of trees, shrubs, palms and bamboo that are among the most used by humans. Overall the report estimates the number of tree species in the world at between 80,000 and 100,000. About 2,400 (3 percent) of the total are managed for the products and services they provide, the report says.

The Committee on Forestry meets every two years, bringing together heads of forest services and other senior government officials to discuss forests.