Some two billion people – nearly a quarter of the global population – lack sufficient micronutrients in their diets, an issue known by scientists as “hidden hunger.” Markets, often placing higher prices on more nutritious foods, particularly in remote locations, aren’t always a viable solution to this.
Could forests be?
In what its authors say is a first, a recent paper tested and quantified three main paths linking forests and tree cover to dietary diversity to better comprehend their relative importance to each other – something, the authors say, hasn’t yet been well understood.
Drawn from more than 1,700 households in seven tropical countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, the results demonstrate that forests are important to more diverse and healthy diets of people living in and near them. But, this is often only the case if the forests are integrated with local farming practices, a land-use model known as “land-sharing,” says lead author Frédéric Baudron, a systems agronomist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Zimbabwe.
The alternative to land-sharing is land-sparing, in which nature and agriculture are separated, and the paper’s findings come amid a growing debate over which of two is more beneficial for human wellbeing as well as environmental conservation.
“Our research has been looking, for the first time, into these really important pathways, and to test these pathways and quantify them so we can better understand the role of forests and their importance in dietary diversity,” he explains.
Baudron and fellow researchers reviewed direct paths from forests to diet, through foods found in the forest (say, bushmeat or mushrooms); and two forms of indirect paths. One is through agroecology, where tree cover sustains farm production through ecosystem services like soil fertility maintenance, water regulation, pollination, pest control, and regulation of micro- and regional climates. The second is through income, where earnings from forest products enable residents to purchase more nutritious foods from the market.
Results varied across the countries. Forests directly influenced the diets of the households studied in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Zambia; agroecology was found to improve diets in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Indonesia.
A negative association between tree cover and certain aspects of diet was found in Indonesia, Nicaragua and Zambia; fruit consumption, for instance, was lower, which could be due to seasonal changes in the availability of forest food or cultural differences. The scientists also state that in some places like Nicaragua, non-Indigenous people might not have the knowledge or traditions to understand which wild foods, such as vegetables and bushmeat, are good to consume.
No evidence was found that forest-related income provides money that goes toward purchasing better food. That, said Baudron, raises some questions about popular suggestions that improved market access would solve problems of hidden hunger, particularly in remote landscapes.
Overall, the research suggests that communities must be supported in ways tailored to their very specific circumstances – in other words, one size won’t fit all in the fight against hidden hunger. But one thing was clear across all of the landscapes studied: land-sparing could threaten local food production by cutting off rural households from forest food and from ecosystem services supporting agriculture.
“However, our results suggest that the positive contributions of forests to rural livelihoods cannot be generalized and should not be idealized,” said Baudron. “These mechanisms can vary significantly from one site to another, calling for site-specific interventions.”