Most people know that foods like mangos, tamarinds, and avocados grow on trees, but what many eaters don’t realize is that trees and forests provide more than just food—they can enhance soils, protect biodiversity, preserve precious water supplies, and even help reduce the impacts of climate change.
A recent report published by Bioversity International, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and Charles Sturt University explains how trees and forests can play a big role in sustainable diets. Unfortunately, cultural factors and limited data about food production from forests inhibit policy-makers, farmers, scientists and eaters from understanding the various benefits of agroforestry.
According to the report, forests contribute to the livelihoods of more than 1.6 billion people. Yet, 30 percent of the world‘s forests are used primarily for production of wood products. Agroforestry is an integrated approach incorporating crops, livestock, shrubs, and trees. These practices help landowners diversify products and income while improving soil and water quality.
“Food from the forest offers sources of essential nutrients like iron, vitamin A and zinc—often lacking from diets in developing countries,” says Amy Ickowitz, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Bush meat or wild meat, for example, is the main source of animal protein in many tropical forested areas. Meat from birds, wild pigs, and small rodents is often the only source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and iron for some communities, including in Madagascar, where the loss of bushmeat would result in a 29 percent increase in iron deficiency anemia in children.
Forest food is also socially and culturally important to many societies. But, whether forest food is actually consumed depends on local trends and practices, says the report. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, fiori berries could provide children their required iron intake, but the berries are rarely eaten. In other regions, forest foods, such as marula and mongongo, are not consumed because there is no knowledge about their nutritional make-up.
According to Barbara Vinceti, of Bioversity International, “promoting the necessary behavioral change to use and consume what are often considered inferior foods remains one of the biggest challenges.”
The Bioversity International report suggests that the constraints of agroforestry need to be removed. The authors suggest increasing awareness and knowledge on nutritious forest foods into national strategies. Additionally, farmers, eaters, and policy makers should be educated on the resilience, health, cost-effectiveness, and sustainability of food forests.
The success of agroforestry in Peru, Mali, India, and other countries is the the topic of discussion at the World Agroforestry Conference this week in Delhi, India. The conference hopes to accelerate the use of trees in agriculture and the landscape to support a growing population.
For more information on the conference follow #WCA2014 on Twitter or read more here.