Science Story

Forests Can Play a Key Role in Addressing Global Hunger and Malnutrition

Diane Banegas
Research & Development, U.S. Forest Service
August 31st, 2015 at 6:45PM

Although row crop agriculture will remain the major source of food for people around the globe, the link between forests and food production and nutrition could be a key to ending world hunger. That’s the conclusion reached by the authors of “Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition: A Global Assessment Report,” a report released by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, or “IUFRO.”

It is definitely not a new discovery. Throughout history, people have always relied to varying degrees on forests and tree-based agricultural systems such as shifting cultivation, agroforestry, and tree crops for food and nutrition. Even in our increasingly urbanized world, nearly one in six people on our planet depend directly on forests. The so-called “hidden harvest” of wild foods, fuelwood, and fodder are essential parts of this dependence.

“What is new is the growing recognition by policy makers of this important function of forests and trees, particularly in light of the fact that conventional agricultural development strategies have fallen short of eliminating global hunger and malnutrition,” said John Parrotta, the national program leader for international science issues in Forest Service Research and Development and one of the report’s co-authors.

In many parts of the world, the expansion of commodity crops—such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, and livestock production—have been the chief drivers of forest loss and degradation, and the associated biodiversity losses. Accentuating the role of forests and trees in relation to conventional agriculture may be a win-win solution that reduces global hunger while simultaneously minimizing or even reversing forest and biodiversity loss.

“This use of forests represents a critical safety net for many people during ‘hungry seasons’ when food may be scarce, due to crop failures or other factors that disrupt normal agricultural activities, including armed conflicts,” Parrotta said.  In some parts of the world, particularly in the tropics, highly developed systems of forest management have been developed and modified over many generations for high production of a variety of forest foods, such the forests of the Amazon estuary managed primarily for the fruits of the açai palm, or the complex agroforests found in many parts of Southeast Asia.

There are also a staggering variety of agroforestry systems, meaning land use systems and practices in which trees are integrated with crops or animals or both on the same land management unit. These systems have been developed and modified by farmers in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions worldwide over centuries, or even millennia in some regions. 

The field of agroforestry emerged only a few decades ago. Some research has sought to understand the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of traditional agroforestry practitioners from a scientific perspective. Research is also ongoing to adapt agroforestry systems to local conditions in ways that will enhance their applicability and relevance to changing environmental, economic, and social conditions. Here at the U.S. Forest Service, the National Agroforestry Center conducts research, develops technologies and tools, and coordinates demonstrations and trainings to help accelerate the application of agroforestry in the United States.

“Balancing the competing demands placed on forests and the goods and services they provide is a challenge for all countries,” Parrotta said.  In the case of enhancing the role of forests for food security and nutrition, it is also necessary to have a fuller understanding of how forests are currently serving this function and also of the complex environmental, social, economic and political forces and trends within and outside of the forestry and agriculture sectors that are driving land use changes and forest loss. 

“There is no one-size-fits all approach to this challenge, but as the report discusses in some detail, adoption of a landscape approach for managing resilient and climate-smart landscapes and the maintenance of ecosystem services should be at the forefront of these efforts.”

Stay tuned for a special Profile in Science on John Parrotta, soon to be published on Science Stories.