Forests: an overlooked resource for tackling micronutrient deficiency

A child holds a banana. CIFOR/Marlon del Aguila Guerrero
17 September 2018

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BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — A study by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute argues that forests are an overlooked resource in the fight against micronutrient deficiency and suggests that the conventional response to malnutrition in many developing countries – clearing forests to raise the production of staple crops – limits dietary diversity.

Micronutrient deficiency affects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, and although symptoms often go unnoticed, negative health impacts are significant. They include reduced cognitive and physical development and increased rates of childhood morbidity and mortality. Vitamin A deficiency, for instance, is strongly linked with diarrheal disease, the second-leading cause of child mortality worldwide.

Nutrient-sensitive conservation efforts could help to address this challenge: forest products not only supply essential micronutrients but also generate additional income which can be invested into agricultural production or the consumption of nutritious food. Forests also provide habitats for pollinators which play a critical role in the production of quality crops, fruit, and vegetables.

CASE FOR CONSERVATION

The University of Vermont study is not the first to make the connection between forests and dietary diversity – but it is one of only a handful of studies that support this connection with a substantial body of global data. Using a database managed by the Demographic and Health Surveys Program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the study analyzed data from 43,000 households across 27 countries and four continents.

In order to move beyond the limitations of most previous studies, which tend to be based on simple correlations and single case studies, the study also accounted for variables that could moderate the impacts of forests on nutrient intake: proximity to markets and roads, and education levels.

The data revealed an astonishing result: children living close to forests had at least 25 percent greater diversity in their diets than those living further away – suggesting that forests can substantially reduce micronutrient deficiency. “This is a powerful, actionable result,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute and senior author on the paper. “It’s comparable to the impacts of some nutrition-focused agricultural programs.”

Commenting on the research, Amy Ickowitz, team leader for Sustainable Landscapes and Food at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who has conducted similar research (for instance here and here), welcomed the study. “The research reinforces results from previous studies which show that forests are associated with better diets, and by using a different methodology and arriving at the same conclusions, provides some assurances that the results are robust.”

INTEGRATED APPROACHES  

Forest conservation and efforts to improve nutrition and health have rarely been aligned. But the results clearly demonstrate that in addition to supporting livelihoods, mitigating climate change, and protecting wildlife, forest conservation could be an important tool that supports efforts to address poor nutrition in developing countries.

The authors of the Vermont study argue that forest conservation efforts should complement nutrition-focused agricultural programs as part of an integrated strategy to address micronutrient deficiency – thereby moving beyond initiatives that only target the increased production of staple crops to increase the range of nutrients that children and their families consume.

The report suggests that by “collaborating more closely, conservation and public health scholars and practitioners can better incorporate nutrition goals into forest conservation efforts and design and effectively implement actions to achieve these goals.”

But, collaboration can be a challenge, particularly at the national level: “It is often the case that those in charge of forestry and land use decisions do not interact with their colleagues in agriculture, and even less so with colleagues in nutrition and health,” says Ickowitz. “Many in forestry do not really think about issues of diet and nutrition, and it is not part of their mandates.”

Translating research into policy could also be difficult. While the Vermont study is a first step towards convincing policy makers that the relationship between forests and nutrition is real, more information is needed.

“I don’t think we are at the point where we clearly understand this relationship well enough,” argues Ickowitz. “Although people living near forests seem to have better diets, we don’t yet know what foods they are eating, or whether these foods are actually coming from forests – it might be that people living near forests practice different types of agriculture than those living far away, for instance, and it is these practices that lead to better diets.”

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