Contribution of Forests, Trees and Agroforestry to Sustainable Food Security and Nutrition in a Time of Crisis

CONTRIBUTION OF FORESTS, TREES AND AGROFORESTRY TO SUSTAINABLE FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION IN A TIME OF CRISIS

by Mulia Nurhasan, Stepha McMullin, and Amy Ickowitz | July 7, 2020

Forests, trees and agroforestry provide nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and nuts, that contribute to livelihoods and to the diversification of diets. They also provide ecosystem services — water regulation, soil fertility and conservation, pollination services, temperature regulation — all of which support sustainable and resilient food systems. The 2017 publication of the High Level Panel of Experts report "Sustainable Forestry for Food Security and Nutrition" detailed these contributions, but more needs to be done to increase the visibility of the roles of trees in food security and nutrition. The COVID-19 global pandemic highlights the need for sustainable and resilient food systems more than ever.

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) with its partners organized a session titled "Contribution of forests, trees and agroforestry to sustainable food security and nutrition in a time of crisis," during the Global Landscape Forum (GLF) Bonn 2020 Digital Conference held from 3 to 5 June. The conference was attended by 5,000 people from 185 countries, and kick-started a global conversation on how to ‘build back better’ and transform food systems to protect human well-being and planetary health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vincent Gitz, FTA Director, opened the session explaining that FTA hosted the session to share what forests, trees and agroforestry can bring to food security, nutrition, and the resilience of food systems.

Contribution of Forests, Trees and Agroforestry for Sustainable Food Security and Nutrition

Inge Brouwer, Assistant Professor in Human Nutrition and Health at Wageningen University & Research, who leads A4NH's Food Systems for Healthier Diets research flagship, set the scene for the session by providing an overview of the state of nutrition and diets in today’s world. COVID-19 threatens the ability of people to prioritize healthy diets as it disrupts food systems in low- and middle-income countries due to changes to the food environment, economic impacts on consumers, and access issues related to supply chain disruptions. This will even be harder when they don not know what a healthy diet means. She pointed out that food based dietary guidelines help to define healthy diets in local contexts, and the global nutrition communities should support the translation of global recommendations into local contexts. This should include the promotion of a broader range of local foods which could contribute to healthier diets.

The presentations that followed provided examples of approaches to strengthen the use of local foods to improve the ability of the population to consume nutritious foods throughout the year, as well as in times of shocks such as COVID-19, where trade is restricted and access to market is limited. Stepha McMullin with World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) presented an approach used to make location-suitable recommendations for promoting greater diversity of food trees[1], and crop species on farms. These portfolios (adapted from the Fruit Tree Portfolio Approach) are combinations of indigenous and exotic food tree, and crop species - that could provide for year-round harvest and address key micronutrient gaps in local food systems. Celine Termote of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT presented a participatory community approach for devising more diverse farming systems to address food and nutrition insecurity. An example from Vihiga County in Kenya revealed initial impact evaluations showing increased dietary diversity amongst women and children engaged in the approach.

Prasad Hendre of the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) explained the use of genomics for trait enhancement of ‘underutilized’ or ‘orphan’ species. The AOCC uses advanced breeding methods including genomic selection and marker–trait associations on 101 crops to expedite the breeding cycles for nutritious crops. A short video intervention was shown by Daniel Ofori, the Director of the Forestry Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), who described the work FORIG is doing on Tetrapleura tetraptera, a tree providing fruits which are used as food supplements. FORIG set up a plant for processing of the fruit and established an agroforestry domestication program.

Terry Sunderland of the University of British Columbia outlined some ‘hidden contributions’ of forests with respect to the many ecosystem services they provide that support food production. He gave an example from research in Ethiopia which showed that planting wheat close to forests can improve nitrogen availability, water use efficiency, and therefore increase yields. Another example showed raising livestock close to forests had beneficial effects on food security for local communities as livestock grazed on leaves from forests, which then enriched the soil with their manure, resulting in higher yields.

Researchers also shared examples of how indigenous foods could support the food and nutrition security of people who are often marginalised and often most vulnerable to the response to shocks like COVID-19. Leandro Castello of Virginia Tech University presented evidence from the Amazon, where people in floodplain areas with more forest cover capture more fish from rivers, with positive dietary implications. Caleb Tata Yengo of Forest Resources for People, an NGO in Cameroon, shared results from a project in that country showing very high consumption of several forests foods including green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, oily seeds and bushmeat. He showed that the consumption of a forest liana, Gnetum africanum, known locally as eru, explained the higher hemoglobin levels and lower anemia rates in women who lived closer to the forest compared to those further away. Bronwen Powell of Pennsylvania State University pointed out that Indigenous communities around the world are vulnerable to policies that are not attentive to the unique aspects of their food systems; she presented an example from the Gumuz, a marginalized ethnic group in Ethiopia, whose preferred traditional lablab bean variety is dependent on shifting cultivation, which the government is now discouraging.

Mulia Nurhasan of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) shared an example from West Papua Province of Indonesia, where the local government quickly responded to the situation with a campaign to improve local food production and consumption, many of which are forest foods. CIFOR is working with the local government of West Papua to study how online platforms can help establish a supply chain of forest foods to reach urban consumers.

The current pandemic as a ‘wake up’ call drawing attention to the roles of forest, trees and agroforestry for enhancing resilience

The coronavirus crisis has unveiled vulnerabilities of food systems that rely heavily on imported foods. Although forests, trees and agroforestry make diverse and important contributions to food security and nutrition, these roles have not been very visible to the wider public or even to policy makers. Amy Ickowitz of CIFOR wrapped up the session with a call to spread the message of the diverse roles that forests, trees and agroforestry play in food security and nutrition. The greater the appreciation of these roles, the more support there will be for conserving forests, planting trees, and preserving local foods contributing to the resilience of food systems and recovery from shocks such as COVID-19.


Mulia Nurhasan is an associate at CIFOR. Stepha McMullin is a scientist at ICRAF. Amy Ickowitz is Team Leader for Sustainable Landscapes and Food at CIFOR. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors. 

[1] Food Trees - those that provide a variety of nutrient dense foods including fruits, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, & edible oils are important in local food systems.

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