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Forests are Still Essential in Fighting World Hunger, Maybe More Than Ever

May 06, 2015 04:25 PM EDT
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It's no secret that despite abundant supplies in developed worlds, a worrying number of people are still starving in the modern age. This problem may only grow worse as net populations rise and agricultural production sinks. Now, new research has shown that even deforestation could make things worse, as forests have proven themselves to be more important to global food security than previously thought.

That's according to the most comprehensive scientific analysis to date on the relationships between forests, food, and nutrition. The results were presented today at the United Nations (UN) Forum on Forests.

More than 60 renowned scientists from around the world collaborated on the peer-reviewed publication "Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition. A Global Assessment Report," which was coordinated by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF).

"This report reminds us of the vital role of forests in building food security," Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said in a statement. "It makes a convincing case for multi-functional and integrated landscape approaches and calls for community level engagement to re-imagine forestry and agriculture systems."

A Fall of Farming?

First, it should be pointed out that experts have long been convinced that there is plenty of food in the world to go around. If there was a will and means to evenly distribute global food wealth, no one anywhere in the world would ever go hungry. Unfortunately, that is near impossible from a logistics standpoint, and soon may even take a turn for the worse.

That's because factors like salted soil, global pollinator declines, and even climate change are all severely impacting agriculture, potentially leading to a sharp decline for staple crops like wheat and soy in the future. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

A past study has found that those two leading crops, alongside palm oil, maize and sugars - make up a whopping 80 percent of the world's diet and food trade. What's worse, because many developing worlds are heavily dependent on imported foods, shortages on a local scale could have far-reaching consequences.

"Overall, in the last two decades there has been an increase in the number of trade-dependent countries that reach sufficiency through their reliance on trade," study author Paolo D'Odorico explained in a statement. "Those countries may become more vulnerable in periods of food shortage."

The new UN report argues that as these potential problems press in, many countries could turn to forests for help - more so than ever before.

Forest Favors

"Forest foods often provide a safety net during periods of food shortages," explained Bhaskar Vira, chair of the Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Food Security, which compiled the report. "In the study, we reveal impressive examples which show how forests and trees can complement agricultural production and contribute to the income of local people, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world." (Scroll to read on...)

A child's daily requirement for vitamin A can be met by around 25 g of a deep orange-fleshed mango variety.
(Photo : Terry Sunderland) A child's daily requirement for vitamin A can be met by around 25 g of a deep orange-fleshed mango variety.

Specifically, the report details how even today, otherwise starving nations use hunting and gathering in forests to supplement their diets with essential vitamins. Even local pollinators make use of forests as an additional source of nectar - allowing for a strong and robust insect population that can then better support fledgling agricultural sectors.

"We know that forests already play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change," added Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO's Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) initiative. "This report makes it very clear that they also play a key role in alleviating hunger and improving nutrition."

Underestimating the Undeveloped

And while it may sound like this forest reliance only applies to a small portion of the world, you may simply be underestimating how many undeveloped nations actually exist. According to the report, close to one out of every six people directly depends on forests for their food and income, with regions like Sahel, for example, relying on trees for a whopping 80 percent of the average household's income.

"What keeps people hungry is often not the lack of food, but the lack of access to that food and control over its production. We need to recognize claims over food sovereignty which give local people greater control over their food," Vira explained.

Some parts of the world are already seeing this. Communities in the wild and landmine riddled Cardamom Mountains - once home to the last Khmer Rouge rebel stronghold - for instance, are ushering in a new era of tree farming and forest stewardship. Thanks to trees, they are hacking out a rough, but healthy living in what most would see as an inhospitable region.

They may even be better off than some more traditional crop farmers in the years to come.

"Large-scale crop production is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which may occur more frequently under climate change. Science shows that tree-based farming can adapt far better to such calamities," Wildburger added. (Scroll to read on...)

A rural family in the Kibungo Catchment, Ulugurus mountains, Tanzania.
(Photo : Flickr: meaduva) A rural family in the Kibungo Catchment, Ulugurus mountains, Tanzania.

The report adds how new efforts are underway in Africa to see similar strategies implemented. For instance, some poor farmers are being introduced to a global effort to produce the seeds of the Allanblackia crop, which yield an edible oil with potential for the global food market. It has been estimated that in the future a stable and sustainable Allanblackia oil business could be worth hundreds-of-millions of dollars (USD) in annual income for struggling villages and towns.

The report precedes the UN finalization of the Sustainable Development Goals, designed to address, among other global challenges, poverty and hunger.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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