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Appendix 4.1.2


Food and Nutrition Division
FAO, Rome


Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) have been defined as "all goods of biological origin other than wood in all its forms, as well as services derived from forest or any land under similar use." In many parts of the world, these products still play an important biological and social role in local food systems. They can contribute substantially to nutrition, either as part of the family diet or as a means to achieve household food security. They can also improve health through the prevention and treatment of diseases. Poor households residing in and around forest areas particularly landless people, women and children depend to a greater or lesser extent on the exploitation of common property forest resources in their everyday life or in periods of crisis.

Since NWFPs are essentially part of local subsistence economies, they have not received the required attention in development planning and in nutrition improvement programmes of the population group which depends on them. As a result, their potential contribution to human welfare remains unrealised. Although one should not expect forest foods to ensure food self-sufficiency of the local population, they can nevertheless constitute an important element of sustainable diets, i.e. balanced diets based on local foods which can be obtained in a sustainable way. Such resources which are often seen as relics of the past should actually be considered as underexploited opportunities for the future.

This paper will therefore summarize existing information on the contribution of NWFPs to household nutrition, discuss existing constraints to their sustainable use and suggest measures to optimize their contribution/.


NWFPs as Sources of Food

Forest foods combine foods from plant and animal origin. Plant foods are often classified into fruits and seeds, nectars and saps, stems and tubers, leaves and mushrooms. Animal foods can be of invertebrate (insects and insect larvae) or vertebrate (bushmeat or fish) origin. This paper will not attempt an exhaustive inventory of forest foods but will present a few examples to illustrate their role in local food systems.

Forest foods or "bush foods" are often associated with wild or uncultivated plants and animals. The dichotomy between "wild" and "domesticated" is, however, often artificial as the analysis of local farming systems in forested areas worldwide shows a continuum from subsistence foraging to commercial agriculture. There is no clear dividing line between foraging and agriculture.
Farming the forest

Kayapo Indians in the Amazon basin rely heavily on semi-domesticated NWFPs planted along trails or in forest fields for food, medicine, building materials, dyes, scent, insect repellent, etc. and the exchange of plants as gifts is an essential social mechanism. Village sites are marked by planting trees such as Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) or babassu (Orbignya phalerata) palms. Large trees are felled or natural forest openings are utilized for planting, transplanting and spreading plant species which require little or no human care after planting. They also have been managing "resource islands" or "war gardens" filled with the requisite species for human and animal survival (in particular resistant tubers) to provide refuge in times of war or disasters. It is therefore often difficult to differentiate apparently primary forest from old forest fields. 

"The importance of semi-domesticated species in post-contact Amazonia: effects of the Kayapo Indians on the dispersal of flora and fauna", Posey, in Tropical forests, people and food, Unesco 1993.) In Papua New Guinea, management of forest resources has led to a domesticated forest landscape with forest gardening. Home gardens with trees are also important sources of food for many. In Java, agroforestry systems provide more than 40 percent of the total calories consumed by some farming communities (Christanty et al., 1986). In Nigeria, traditional home gardens contain at least 60 species of trees which provide food products (Okafor and Fernandes, 1987). 

Nutrients from Forest Foods

Forest foods provide a wide variety of nutrients: carbohydrates, such as starches, fructose and other soluble sugars, protein, fats and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Tree legumes and human nutrition

The seeds of the African locust bean (Parkia spp), a perennial tree legume, are consumed in Africa, South-East Asia and tropical South America. 

In Malaysia and Indonesia, the whole pods, sometimes preserved by pickling in salt, are eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable known as petai

In West Africa, from Gambia to Cameroon, the beans of the Savannah species are widely fermented to the traditional dawadawa or soumbara, a nutritious protein (40 percent of dry matter) and fat (35 percent) rich food which keeps for over a year without refrigeration and is added to soups and grain porridges, while the vitamin-C rich pericarp called dozim is eaten by children raw or as a sweet drink. The beans mature in the dry season in February and March, providing valuable food in the middle of the traditional "hungry season" before the new harvest (Campbell-Platt, 1980). Annual production figures are difficult to obtain since they do not enter regular commercial trade. It has however been estimated that 200,000 tons of beans are gathered each year in Northern Nigeria. 

The fruit of the related carob tree is made into flour or beverage in the semi-arid Chaco region in South America. Prepared as Patay, it has a high content of absorbable calcium. 

The deep roots of Parkia trees needed to find underground water provide a reliable annual crop even in the lean, drought years where herbaceous plants and cultivated crops fail to grow.

Table 1: Nutrient composition of the edible portion of some tree/shrub species in compound farms 1/
Species Edi-
% fresh weight (unless otherwise stated)  mg per 100 g fresh weight 
(unless otherwise stated) 
Vitamin A 
(in internatio
nal units)
kg gamma)
vin (kg gamma)
Fat  Car
Ca  Fe  Nico 
tianic acid 
bic acid 
Annona muricata fruit pulp                           
Artocarpus communis fruit pulp  109  70  1.5  0.3  25  25  1.0  15  35  200 
Carica papaya fruit pulp  38  89  0.6  10  0.5  0.1  60  2500  20  20 
Cola acuminata nut  309  12  9.0  1.0  66 
Cola nitida nut  83  1.5  0.6  3.1  1.4  0.7  9.8  31  11  47 
Daniella oliveri dried leaves  9.4  5.5 
Ficus gnaphalocarpa dried leaves  11.6  13.8 
Irvingia gabonensis dried kernel  54 
Monodora myristica residual seed meal  212  1.0  17.6  2.8  29 
Moringa oleifera fresh seeds                         
Moringa oleifera fresh leaves                         
Pentraclethra sacrophylla kernel  569  10  22  45  17  90 
Prosopis africana pod pulp  279  9.6  9.2  53  160  70 
Prosopis africana dried stems + leaflets  300  7.9  10.2  6.8  50   
Pterocarpus spp dried leaves  218  10.1  17.1  2.4  32  500  70 
Spondias mombin fruit pulp  72.8  1.3  0.1  31.4  2.8  0.9  46.4  71  95  50 
Telfaria pedata kernel  517  6.6  19.6  36  28.5 
Vitex doniana dried leaves                         

1 Data extracted from Irvine, 1961.

Different parts of the same species are consumed as food by different population groups. For example, local people consume products of certain palm varieties as cooked fruits, as hearts of palm, as vegetable oil, as palm wine (the sap is rich in protein, vitamins and iron) or in the form of flour for baking. Their high contents in fats and beta-carotene render them particularly important for the nutritional welfare of the population. Another example is the baobab (Adansonia Digitata): the leaves, either fresh or dried and ground to a powder, are added to the staple of grain crops. The fruit is also eaten. Processing techniques also vary from one population group to another, determining the nutritional content and quality of the food eaten.

Starch reserves in stems, roots and tubers (cassava, sweet potatoes, yams) usually constitute a major food source in forest areas. Sago starch is widely used in Asian rainforests: palm sago of the Metroxylon species constitutes the main energy food for at least 300,000 people in Melanesia and one million people eat it regularly as part of their diet (Ulijaszek, 1983). Forest yams, which constitute the tubers of lianas, are consumed in Africa, Australia and Asia (e.g. the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand).

Most fruits and berries are rich in carbohydrates (fructose and soluble sugars), and in vitamins (in particular Vitamin C) and minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium). Some of them can also contain protein, fat or starch (such as bananas and plantains, or palm dates). Juicy fruits are usually poor in proteins and oil but rich in vitamins and minerals.

Nuts are rich in oils and carbohydrates and as such play a key role in people's diets. Chestnuts have been for centuries a staple food of poor rural households in forested areas of Europe. The shea-butter tree (Butyrospermum paradoxum) follows the oil palm as the main source of fat in Africa.

Herbaceous plants and young leaves are eaten as vegetables and provide essential vitamins. A study in Swaziland found that wild leaves supplied as much beta-carotene, Vitamin C, calcium and iron as leaves from cultivated plants.
From local leaf to national delicacy

Gnetum africanum is a Central African forest creeper. Its perennial foliage is consumed in large amounts as vegetable. The leaves are gathered and cut into thin slices. These can be eaten raw and green but are generally added to meat and fish dishes at the end of the cooking time. They constitute a significant source of protein, particularly essential amino acids, and mineral elements. 

Women play an essential role in the gathering of gnetum and sell it in the markets. 

Traditionally, gnetum consumption was limited to localized population groups. With the recent demographic mix, it has spread to the population at large and gnetum has become a socio-cultural symbol. Many restaurants now offer specialities including gnetum in the sub-region and it is even exported to Europe. With an average daily consumption of 2 g per day in Congo, this wild species is now threatened with extinction.

Nectars and pollens contribute to the production of honey and therefore constitute an important albeit indirect element of local food habits. Gums and saps provide proteins and minerals. Gum arabic (from Acacia senegal) usually better known for its industrial uses is traditionally consumed by Mauritanian nomads either fried as "tomake n'dadzalla" or mixed with a sugary liquid.

Invertebrates include leaf-eating insects, caterpillars, snails and crabs. A total of 1 383 species of edible insects have been identified to date, 63.6 percent of which live in tropical forests. Insects are very efficient into converting plant protein (9-10 percent) into insect protein (44-70 percent). They are also an important source of fat in areas where local diets are poor in fats. Caterpillars are particularly rich in Vitamin B 12.

Vertebrates include mammals, bird, freshwater fish. In many parts of the world, hunting still remains an important subsistence activity and bushmeat still provides a critical source of protein for both urban and rural populations. In Amazonia, indigenous groups living near large rivers acquire up to 85 percent of their dietary protein through fishing (Eden, 1990). Snails and rats may be eaten several times a week in some villages.

Forest Foods and Household Diet

Forest foods are particularly important in predominantly subsistence economies in remote areas. They generally play a supplementary role in the diet, and rarely constitute staple foods. They contribute to diet diversity and flavour. They are eaten as snacks or relishes to complement the usually starchy staples. Sauces improve the quantity and quality of food intake. They therefore constitute an essential part of an otherwise bland and nutritionally poor diet.

The contribution of forest foods to the household diet varies from one village to the other according to the environmental, socio-cultural and economic context. In forested areas of Africa and Latin America, game provides most of the meat eaten by rural populations. In savannah areas of Venezuela, some groups obtain almost all their calories from foraging in the savannah and the forest (Hurtado and Hill, 1987). Even those who live primarily in agricultural settlements in Paraguay spend a quarter of their time foraging (Hill et al., 1987). In Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Himchal Pradesh, India, 80 percent of forest dwellers depend on forest for 25-50 percent of annual food requirements (Malhotra et al., 1992).

Figure 1: Contribution to the energy (left) and protein (right) content of the diet of the
Yassa, Mvae and Bakola, according to food acquisition method

Seasonality is an important constraint for foraging and determines, to a great extent, variations in the diet of indigenous people. Seasonality constraints have therefore generally been built into traditional farming systems.

In many agricultural communities, people rely on a main staple crop, the seasonality of which implies periods of food shortage usually referred to as "lean season" or "hungry season" which particularly affect the poorest households. In lean periods, when few cultivated varieties of food are available, storage facilities are empty and/or money is in short supply, hunting and gathering helps alleviate seasonal hunger. This explains why the peak collection of forest fruit does not occur during the main fruiting season, when fruits are most plentiful, but rather when they are most needed, i.e. when cultivated food supplies dwindle and the requirements for agricultural labour are limited. Some forest foods are also consumed in times of scarcity as a substitute for staple foods.

In compound farms in the rainforest of southeastern Nigeria (Okafor and Fernandes, 1986), farmers have developed a multi-crop system that provides a diversified and continuous production of food, combining species with different maturity periods such as yams, cassava, cocoyams, bananas, plantain, maize, okra, pumpkin, melon, leafy vegetables and a variety of trees and shrubs, 60 of which provide food products. This ensures a balanced diet but also reduces the need for storage in an area where post-harvest losses are high.The contribution of forest foods to nutrition also varies both among and within households. Poor and landless people are often more dependent on forest foods than those with moderate incomes: one study reports that poor and landless Thai households depend on forest foods five to six days a week, while moderate income people rely on forest foods, on average, three days a week (Saowakontha et al. 1988).

Table 2:Seasonal variation in food products available in the village of Kibangu
Minor dry season 
Minor rainy season 
Major dry season 
Major rainy season 
Harvest period
Dry period
Transition period
Lean period

Bitter cucumber 

Sweet potatoes 
Palm oil 
Leaves of wild plants 
Manioc leaves 
Palm nuts 
Fresh caterpillars 
Bought products


Bitter cucumber 

Sweet potatoes 
Freshwater fish 
Wild snakes 
Wild leaves 

Dried cowpeas 
Bitter cucumber 
Wild leaves 

Palm oil 

Dried peanuts 



Wild leaves 

Manioc leaves 

Source: Seasonal variation of diet and nutritional status of young children in villages of Kwango-Kwilu, Zaïre Kukwikila et al., in Tropical forests, people and food, Unesco (1993).

Fruits and seeds are consumed as snacks mainly by children and in some cases by women. Ntomba children in Zaïre also collect small fry, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets which they share among themselves. Some of these foods are actually considered as child food (Pagezy, 1990). In Haiti, children are reported to miss school in periods of food scarcity in order to complement their diet with foraging. In the Andes, berries from wild shrubs are eaten by children and constitute a major source of vitamins in their diet.

Forest foods can be life saving in times of famine or natural disasters as roots, stems and honey can provide energy. In areas when rainfall is low and erratic, fruits of trees and shrubs play an important role as emergency food. Generally however the collection, processing and preparation of such foods is time consuming and they are therefore being progressively abandoned with increasing commercialization and degradation of forest resources. People tend to rely more and more on markets and food aid in times of emergency.

Cultural Aspects in the Consumption of Forest Foods

Edible plant or animal species in a given area may or not be eaten, depending on the local culture. The consumption of foods is certainly as much a social issue as a biological one. Food is an essential part of most social interactions and rites. The selection of foods must be understood in the context of the social, political and economic processes that underlie them. Individual decisions regarding food acquisition and consumption are seldom independently made or value-free. They are generally guided by local cultural perceptions, attitudes and beliefs.

Wild foods often have a cultural value and are consumed during special feasts. Their taste is often considered superior by local populations. Some forest sites and/or species may also have a sacred value.

These values vary from one village to another. However, traditions are continuously changing according to new perceived opportunities. This evolution is accelerated by changes in attitude in the younger generations and immigration of people with different values.

Local perceptions of the value of a given food are generally independent from its nutritional content. A typical example is meat. Bushmeat is often called "real meat" and is highly preferred to domesticated animals. The distribution and exchange of game meat play an important role in social relations and indigenous cultures. This often remains the case as societies evolve and modernize. This partly explains the high urban demand for bushmeat, which has become a luxury item.
Changing consumption patterns and cultural value of forest foods

A three-month qualitative study was carried out by FAO (Olsson, 1991) in representative villages in Tonga and Vanuatu islands, South Pacific. In typical Tongan farms, various crops and coconut trees are intercropped with an average of 85 trees of various species providing fruit, raw material for handicrafts (e.g. weaving, preparation of bark cloth, decorative elements) or cooking utensils (from bamboo, branches and half-coconuts). Pigs are left to forage. 

Consumption of some traditional foods, such as insects, is declining and elders complain that young people do not like this type of food any more. Foods which once provided security against famine following hurricanes and droughts have now been replaced by more recently introduced cassava and sweet potato and have become obsolete as famine foods. However, these foods retain a high cultural value which cassava and sweet potato have not acquired even though they provide food security. They therefore do not run the risk of being depleted from ritual feasting. 

In some cases, cultivated starchy vegetables are considered as real food while a low value is attributed to most gathered plants. Low availability of culturally valued foods often leads to complaints of food scarcity and hunger even if other potential food is plentiful.

Mushrooms are highly valued in many societies, and sometimes considered as "meat". Although they contain protein, carbohydrates, fats, salts, fibres and are rich in Vitamin B, they are usually considered as gourmet foods rather than subsistence foods.

In any society, the use of foods is determined by a series of unwritten rules and codes. Taboos and ritually marked foods may, for example, determine the selection of foods for specific social groups (e.g. women, children, adult males). These are often linked to local health beliefs. Many foods in particular spices are considered to have properties that improve health and are therefore used as self-administered medication. For example, in some areas lactating women consume greater quantities of bushfoods to acquire additional vitamins. Actually the dichotomy medicine vs. food used by industrialized societies bears little relevance to most rural communities because many foods are considered to have properties that improve health.
Foods or medicines?: an example from Sri Lanka

Traditionally, villagers inhabiting the edge of the Sinharanja rain forest have used a variety of plant species for both food and medicine. 

Seeds of wild cardamom, for example, are harvested by large groups of villagers from August to September. By virtue of their uses as a spice (used to flavour curries and cakes and exported to the Middle East where it is added as a flavouring to coffee) and medicine (given internally for the diseases of the liver and uterus, as a diuretic and to prevent excessive vomiting in children), these seeds contribute to the local village economy. 

Woody stems of the liana Coscinium fenestratum is one of the commonest indigenous medicinal ingredients found in both rural and urban households, and is usually taken in combination with other medicinal plant products to treat a variety of ailments from fever to tetanus. 

A variety of indigenous food preparations (cooked into curries or as steamed salted or sweet dishes) is made with flour made from the fruits of the Shorea tree. These are strongly recommended by local physicians for gastritis and other bowel ailments. 

Underutilized food plant resources of Sinharaja Rain Forest, Gunatilleke and Gunatilleke, 1991 in Tropical forests, people and food, Unesco (1993). 

Women play a key role in this field since they usually are the first to diagnose and treat the problems of children. Wild plants constitute the main medicinal source in most traditional societies. They are used in the prevention and treatment of diseases and therefore contribute to the effective biological utilization of food by the individual. Besides this direct contribution, medicinal plants can be bartered or sold and generate income in kind or cash.

NWFPs and Household Food Security

Household food security has been defined as the capacity of the household to cover its food needs at all times. NWFPs traditionally have always played a major role in the household economy of people living in or near forested areas.

Besides their direct contribution to the diet, discussed in the previous section, NWFPs can contribute to household food security in several ways:

NWFPs as In-Kind Contributions to the Household Economy

NWFPs have been traditionally used as construction materials or to make ropes, containers, kitchen utensils or clothing. Many of these in-kind contributions are crucial. Tens of thousands of tons of baobab leaves are harvested per year in West African countries, yet production and consumption remain entirely a local affair and only a small proportion actually enters the commercial circuits. Their role, like that of many NWFPs, is therefore generally underestimated. Development planners and technical staff should however not forget that when NWFPs are not used any more for a given function, they have to be replaced by a substitute that usually must be bought and imported to the area. The contribution of NWFPs directly to fulfil basic needs is therefore particularly important for the poorest households. In many areas they will use, for example, raffia or palm rather than corrugated iron for roofs.

NWFPs also contribute to food production through a variety of mechanisms: they may enrich the nutrient content of the soil, retain moisture, provide shade and windbreaks, control erosion, provide fodder both for domesticated and wild animals (tree fodder is essential in the dry season when the herbaceous groundcover is desiccated), medicine for livestock, stakes for plants. They are used in the preparation of hunting and fishing equipment, in the construction of storage facilities and fences and as plant-based insecticides (e.g. neem tree).

They also indirectly contribute to income generation, since they enter into the making of tools and looms and of crop-marketing equipment (e.g. baskets).

It is often difficult to estimate the value of this in-kind contribution since these items are usually not purchased in these areas, and therefore have no commercial value. However, estimates can be made according to the access to and cost of available alternatives in terms of time, labour and money.

NWFPs, Trade and Income-Generation

NWFPs have traditionally been used in trade, the modalities and importance of which change as the socio-economic environment evolves. Even in isolated areas, barter is increasingly being replaced with monetary exchanges. The sale of NWFPs or employment opportunities resulting from their commercial exploitation for the local, regional or international markets can provide a substantial share of the income of local households at a specific time, therefore contributing to increased welfare and food security.

NWFPs play an important role in local food trade as they enter in the composition of currently consumed foods and beverages. As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to differentiate forest foods and agricultural products, or rather wild and domesticated species. Some NWFPs, such as Brazil nuts, coconuts, essential oils or gum arabic, are well known on the international market. They can provide additional income and jobs to local people and bring in much-needed foreign exchange. Some are of national or regional importance (e.g. yerba mate in Argentina).

Wild foods and medicines find an increasing market with urbanization. Given the rising demand for bushmeat, hunting has become in many cases more lucrative than agriculture. In forested areas of Gabon, the recent economic recession and drop in cocoa prices have prompted the majority of village men to rely on wildlife exploitation as a primary means of generating revenue. As a result, the household consumption of bushmeat and its market value depends on the existing supply. The increased marketing of game and the corresponding diversion of a major traditional food source have often resulted in the decrease in nutritional status of hunting communities.
NWFPs in rural economies: forested areas in India

In India, NWFPs are widely produced and used in Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and North Eastern States. Tribal groups have been progressively pushed into marginal areas where agricultural yields are lower and more uncertain and they therefore rely to a high degree on NWFPs which provide employment to 5,7 million persons per year. Almost 50 percent of the state forest revenues and 80 percent of the net export earning from forest produce derive from NWFPs. 

In the West Midnapore District of Southwest Bengal, productive species can be classified into 7 categories: raw material for commercial sale or processing, subsistence foods and drinks, animal fodder, fuel, timber and fibres for tools and construction purposes and medicine. A number of species have multiple uses: sal tree leaves are used to make plates for religious ceremonies which provides an income-generating occupation during agricultural lean periods fruit are eaten, seeds are sold to produce edible oils, twigs and branches are used for fuel, and stems are used as roofing poles. The fruit of the mahua Bassia latifolia tree are used for fermenting wine, the flowers for human and livestock consumption and the seeds for oil pressing. Fruit and seeds products are very seasonal with harvesting periods ranging from 2 to 6 weeks.

Many types of individuals depend on forest and tree foods. All family members may be involved in their collection but women are usually responsible for processing. Women traditionally play a major role in the processing and trade of NWFPs in many countries: in southwestern Nigeria, women are involved in cola nut trade, in the processing of parkia beans and palm oil and in the making of soap. Women are more likely to allocate the income generated to family sustenance. However this is changing as NWFPs acquire increasing commercial value.

Figure 2: Collecting periods for non-wood forest products in Southwest Bengal

As we have seen for forest foods, processing and trade of NWFPs are often seasonal: this is due in part to the seasonal availability of raw material (such as fruit or mushrooms) that we have previously mentioned, but can also be due to an acute need for cash and/or the availability of labour during slack agricultural work. NWFPs can provide a cash buffer in times of emergency or hardship. Provided forests are accessible, beneficiaries will often be unemployed adults, landless people, children,and other marginal groups.

The income-generating potential of NWFPs will vary from one village to the next, according to the ease of access to markets, the existence of trade networks, the viability of other income-earning opportunities and the skills required for processing. Increased exploitation may, however, lead to a reduction of income-earning potential.

The high demand for cane has resulted in a dwindling supply of canes and community resentment against outsiders looking for cane.Income-Generation and Nutrition

Generating income alone does not automatically ensure improved household food security. Increased exploitation of NWFPs can modify the time allocation of different family members and affect some activities previously related to household food production, processing and preparation, or child care. The income generated is not necessarily spent on appropriate food and health care. Studies carried out in hunting communities have shown that the money obtained was spent on a limited range of processed foods such as sugar, cookies, tinned meats and coffee, and on ammunition, alcohol and batteries. The commercialization of forest foods may also be detrimental to the diets of local people, when the over-exploitation of forest foods has led to a decrease or the disappearance of traditional food sources.

Household food security does not automatically translate into improved nutrition. People's knowledge, attitudes and practices will influence food selection (for production and purchasing), preparation and distribution amongst household members. In some cases, when nutrition and health are given low priority, increased income has actually proven detrimental to nutritional well-being.

It is therefore acknowledged that NWFPs have been historically an integral part of rural food systems and local cultures. Dependency on NWFPs has remained highest in poor households and in marginally productive and environmentally fragile areas. Households in or near forested areas combine different uses of local NWFPs (as food sources, in-kind or cash contribution to household food security) in their economy. This combination will vary according to the knowledge about and availability of these products, the opportunities perceived by the household and its present needs, which in turn will be determined according to ecological, cultural and economic factors. The contribution of NWFPs to household nutrition and the underlying mechanisms will therefore change according to evolving lifestyles, increasing monetization of local economies and existing resource constraints (in terms of natural resources and cash).


The sustainable management and appropriate use of NWFPs face a variety of constraints.

Lack of Information

Information on food-related practices of population groups living in forested areas or in their vicinity, including their food habits and perceptions of foods, is essential for understanding the local food and nutrition situation and its evolution. Available information is uneven, since it has been developed by social-science researchers or biologists (particularly anthropologists or ethnobotanists) concentrating on specific population groups rather than on the local food and nutrition situation. This kind of information is not usually readily available to development planners and policy-makers, who may not even be aware of its existence. Moreover, the professional background of the authors and the requirements for scientific publications can render this information difficult to find, understand and use.

Information on the productivity, nutritional value and use of locally relevant NWFPs is also inadequate. However, checklists of wild plant and animal species eaten by rainforest people are now available for many countries and databases on their nutritional value are being set up. Relevant data could be found in existing food composition tables in similar ecological areas. Development institutions however are usually unaware of their existence. These data should be used critically since the chemical composition of plants varies according to its age and geographical origin (it varies according to climate, altitude or soil).

"Hard data" on the contribution of NWFPs to local diets are often seen as necessary to raise the awareness of policy-makers as to their potential or to warn them against possible negative implications of development programmes on the food and nutrition situation of indigenous groups if the contribution of NWFPs to local consumption patterns is ignored. In fact little information is available on the impact on diets of the reduced consumption of forest foods. Such data are either missing or inadequate since consumption of forest foods is generally under-reported and nutrition studies generally do not address this topic specifically.

The same is also the case for the economic significance of NWFPs. As a rule, no estimates are made of the cash equivalent of their indirect contribution to household food security of subsistence households.

Most information on local edible plants (harvesting, processing, preparation) is indigenous knowledge. In many parts of the world, this is being lost at an accelerated pace and disappears with changes in lifestyle (decrease in subsistence use of wild species, changing occupational patterns of household members) and disappearance of village elders.

Generally speaking, in the last decades, the prevailing forestry approach, concentrating on a limited number of primary commodities (essentially timber) in the search for accelerated economic development, has led to the loss of information which was widely available in forestry departments in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Limited Availability, Access and Use

Availability of NWFPs is becoming a major issue in certain areas for a variety of reasons:

Furthermore, household access to forested areas can be limited as a consequence of demographic pressure or of tenure and legislation issues. Present efforts to privatize common property land have therefore given rise to increasing controversy. Changes in forestry management approaches have led to the decline of often sophisticated traditional tree management practices.

Availability and access problems are compounded by inadequate management of natural resources. Exportation of cane, for example, is encouraged, without attention to ensuring sustainable supply. Regeneration of fibre resources does not keep pace with present exploitation.

If the availability of traditionally exploited NWFPs is becoming a problem, a variety of locally available products remain unexploited, some of which could contribute to diet diversification of both local and urban consumers and/or fetch a high market. Around 200 indigenous and exotic fruit species, for example, have been inventoried in Amazonia.

Inadequate Post-Harvest Technology

Technology is also needed to prevent post-harvest losses. This is particularly important for perishable products. Many NWFPs (e.g. juicy fruits) are characterized by seasonal gluts. Fruit rot and prices fall. The lack of appropriate processing, preservation and storage techniques limits their potential contribution to the household diet as some species may not be edible as such and as many forest foods, being perishable, can only be consumed for a limited period in the year. It also is a major limitation for their marketing and income-generating potential. Organoleptic qualities of popular beverages in rural Argentina, for example, cannot be maintained and these drinks are therefore increasingly being substituted in urban areas.

Household processing of certain forest foods is time-consuming. The absence of alternative processing techniques leads to their progressive substitution by easily prepared foods.

The safety of some forest foods can be a problem. Naturally occurring toxicants are often associated with forest foods and plants. Appropriate processing and preparation techniques are not always known by the local population, resulting either in health problems or limited consumption. A prolonged consumption of food containing natural toxins may bring about chronic toxicity exhibited by reduced growth, digestive disturbance or aggravation of malnutrition. In the absence of acute symptoms, the condition is often undetected. Apart from the obvious health effects, a continuous ingestion of such toxicants can also markedly affect the person's productivity and, as a consequence, further endanger the existence of those populations that subsist on such foodstuffs.
Poisonous Plants: a "rule of thumb"

Although it is impossible to pinpoint all poisonous plants by a simple set of rules, the following generalities are commonly used in survival training: 

  • most poisonous plants have a bitter taste and/or milky juice; 
  • most plant poisons occur in seeds or nuts, some in the fruit and roots, few in the leaves; 
  • wild mushrooms should not be eaten; 
  • laminated bulbs (for example, lily) are generally poisonous; 
  • some, but by no means all, poisons are heat-labile and water soluble; 
  • the "soup" remaining after boiling wild plants should not be consumed; 
  • children should be taught early enough not to put any wild plant berries, foliage or any other parts, into their mouths. 

Inadequate processing, storage and preparation of food can also lead to contamination. For instance, forest foods such as Brazil nuts, pinion nuts and Aleppo pine nuts can be contaminated by aflatoxins when stored in warm and humid conditions.

Poor Marketing

Poor marketing can result in major variations in price (a factor of from 1 to 10 between peak and off-peak months). This is not only due to product availability but also to the fact that many unorganised people enter the market during slack agricultural time.

Inappropriate harvesting and handling practices often result in poor or uneven product quality, which can be a major constraint to successful marketing. For example, products sold as gum arabic which is widely used by the food industry as a food additive to improve viscosity, body and texture of a large variety of food products may actually include different varieties of gum, and not only that of Acacia senegal, which presumably produce the highest quality gum. The lack of quality standards and related controls also limits the commercial exploitation and the export potential of certain products, such as wild mushrooms, leading to low prices and closure of markets. Traditionally-processed mushrooms lack uniformity, are often not properly cleaned, and the dehydration techniques used give them a smoky taste and a black colour, thus dissuading potential consumers.

Marketing of forest foods to generate cash has, in many instances, proven to be a double-edged sword as people with acute cash needs will tend to divert traditional foods away from the household diet.

Lack of Institutional Support

The limited capability of harvesters and processors is compounded by the lack of institutional support. Development workers, and particularly forestry and agricultural extension workers cannot provide the needed technical and management training and advice (such aspects are usually considered neither in their own training nor included in their plan of work) or the required credit support. Health staff, home economists or primary school teachers usually do not provide any advice related to the processing/conservation, preparation and use of such foods.

Inaccurate Consumer Perceptions

Consumers' perceptions determine, to a great extent, local consumption and the marketing potential of forest foods. People usually have limited knowledge of the nutritional value of forest foods. Consumers, in forest areas as well as outside, are often unaware of the benefits and possible uses/preparation of forest foods. They also have little knowledge, if any, of the quality and safety aspects related to the handling, processing/preservation and storage of forest foods. While some forest foods, such as bushmeat, are usually perceived as high prestige foods, others can be perceived as poor people's foods. Some edible forest foods may also be assumed to be toxic and unfit for human consumption (e.g. mushrooms).

In many countries, extension activities are designed at the national level and may not adequately consider local needs and resources. Nutrition education programmes, for instance, often overlook forest foods and promote the use of foods which may not be locally available. These foods would therefore have to be imported to these areas and purchased by the households concerned. In some cases, this has changed the food perceptions of indigenous people and undermined sound traditional food habits (e.g. promotion of weaning foods based on maize gruel in an African rainforest area).


NWFPs continue to make an important contribution to household food security and nutrition in forested areas that have remained at the margin of agricultural and economic development. Their availability, use and importance are closely related to local ecological, economic and socio-cultural conditions. Over the years, this use has been influenced by the overall shift from subsistence economy to market economy. Particular attention needs to be given to ways of making this a successful transition that results in improved welfare for the populations concerned, particularly in household food security and appropriate nutrition.

Gathering Relevant Information

Further information needs to be collected, particularly regarding food-related practices, including food habits and the contribution of forest foods to the local diet. Relevant literature at national and international level should be reviewed, and relevant information clearly summarized for use of development workers at local level. This will require better coordination between the scientific community (including national research centres and universities) and development institutions.

This desk review will need to be complemented with local information-gathering. Qualitative information to identify locally relevant NWFPs and to gain a dynamic understanding of usage patterns (including harvesting systems and task allocation within the household) can be collected through participatory appraisal techniques. Specific attention should be given to food preferences, coping mechanisms during the hungry season, and income-generating opportunities. This should be combined, as needed, with quantitative data-collection. Data on relevant NWFPs should then be incorporated into national forestry statistics and nutrition-related information.

Indigenous knowledge is likely to be the most important source of information. Women are often more knowledgeable on food plants as they are the main gatherers. Elderly people are generally the best informed regarding traditional practices and recent trends. This information-gathering process could be part of a participatory research approach and incorporated as much as possible in the normal activities of community-level development workers. The use of NWFPs, and in particular the consumption of forest foods, should be monitored.

Improving Availability, Access and Use

The production/exploitation techniques for NWFPs should be improved to ensure sustainability and increased yields.

Enrichment planting of indigenous species of nutritional value (e.g. planting of mango saplings in India) and domestication of wild species can provide a more reliable and sustainable food supply. Wild food species, in particular trees, can thus be introduced into local farming systems. They can be incorporated into home gardens or used as shade trees for tea plantations. The domestication of wild yams in agroforestry systems is seen as an important element of the sustainable development of tropical forest regions. Overall, the relation between wildlife management and welfare of indigenous groups is being given increasing attention.

Some areas that are not appropriate for agricultural production could be converted to alternative food production systems: food extraction from palms could be encouraged in swampy areas, for example.

Selection of food-bearing species should take into account not only nutritional value (e.g. appropriate variety of palm to increase beta-carotene consumption) and productivity but also storage constraints: large seeds that take more than two months to germinate should be encouraged.

Legislation should be modified to facilitate sustainable exploitation of NWFPs by local people, and particularly by the poorest households.

Improving Post-Harvest Technologies

The strengthening or introduction of appropriate storage, preservation and processing techniques can both improve household consumption and generate further income. Particular attention should be given to food quality and safety at the processing and preparation stage. Foodstuffs meant for sale should also be in line with existing marketing standards.

Processing and preservation should be considered at different levels: household, cottage-industry, and food industry. However, first-stage processing should be organised within or in the immediate vicinity of forest areas in order to ensure local employment generation and value addition. Cheap and efficient post-harvest techniques for depulping fruits or seed, quick drying of harvested plant material and prophylactic treatment preventing insects (e.g. biopesticides) and microbiological contamination should be introduced together with standards for dry storage.

An appropriate processing technology can improve the socio-economic status of local people, generate employment and ensure better value for the material collected, thus helping to alleviate poverty. Particular attention should, however, be paid to gender issues when dealing with NWFPs. Some foods may be traditionally reserved for men (e.g. palm wine); women and children will likely receive little benefit from the promotion of such foods. The participation of forest users, and in particular women, in the decision-making process of village-level activities is essential.

The development of appropriate technology to process raw products into ready-to-consume food for urban consumers should also be encouraged since this is an essential condition to their effective promotion.

Norms for collection, processing and export of high-value forest foods need to be developed. The application of these norms should be included in more general training on food quality control at different levels.

Processing research should be commodity-oriented and concentrate on NWFPs which can contribute to improve the diet in a sustainable way, or which have a marketing potential at local, national or international levels.

Rationalizing Marketing Systems

Existing marketing systems should be rationalized, and procurement strategies developed. Collectors often receive minimal compensation while consumers have to pay inflated prices. This can be due to the lack of competition between middlemen but it can also be linked to the high risk assumed in buying, transporting and selling in difficult logistic conditions products which are often perishable and of varying quality.

The various intermediaries in the marketing chain should be informed of relevant characteristics of the products which they are trading in order to ensure better service to customers and sellers while maintaining or improving their own benefits.

As previously suggested, efforts should concentrate on products with significant potential for income and employment generation. Efforts should also be made from the start to maximize the participation, organisation and competence of low-income households, and particularly of women: in most cases, when traditional activities have gained economic recognition, they have been taken over by better-off social groups.

Providing Institutional Support

Given the multiplicity of constraints in a given area, the promotion of NWFPs requires an integrated approach which is location-specific and multidisciplinary. Local policy-makers and development staff have an essential role to play in the elaboration, coordination and implementation of such an approach. A communication strategy to raise awareness of decision-makers and relevant development staff at different levels should therefore be considered in countries in which subsistence economy in forested areas is still important.

All the issues mentioned above will require support at all stages of the food chain, and primarily at the local level. Training and extension advice should be provided to potential farmers/harvesters and processors. Credit should also be made available for economic activities based on NWFPs.

Consumer Information and Nutrition Education

An appropriate communication strategy should reinforce sound food-related practices and suggest means to diversify the household diet on the basis of locally available foods and also to ensure food safety. Particular attention should be given to existing forest foods. When NWFPs are used by the household as a means for income generation, a nutrition education and communication strategy for nutrition should be associated to enable households to make informed choices.

Promotion campaigns to encourage the consumption of specific foods would be particularly relevant in an urban or international context. Forest foods could, for example, be introduced in popular canteens or incorporated into street foods in order to provide useful nutrients, preserve traditional food habits and revitalize the social and cultural role of forest foods.

Towards an Integrated Strategy

None of these solutions are, by themselves, likely to ensure the optimal use of local NWFPs. Depending on the situation, horizontal and/or vertical integration may be needed.

On the one hand, participatory micro-projects should integrate management of natural resources, promotion of appropriate harvesting, processing, storage and preparation of NWFPs and community organisation, giving specific attention to at-risk groups. Such an approach could be used to address local nutrition problems through promotion of relevant forest foods (Table 3).

On the other hand, a commodity-based approach will be needed to promote effective commercialization of and relevant consumer information on products likely to bring employment and/or income generation. The different stages of the production chain from research to utilization will need to be addressed.

Table 3: Some common nutrition problems and the potential role of forest food

Nutrient-related problems Forest food with potential for combatting deficiencies
Protein-Energy malnutrition: due to inadequate food consumption causing reduced growth, susceptibility to infection, changes in skin hair and mental facility. Energy rich food which is available during seasonal or emergency food shortages, especially, nuts, seeds, oil-rich fruit and tubers; e.g. the seeds of Geoffroea decorticans, Ricinodendron rautanenil, and Parkia sp.; oil of Elaeus guineensis, babassu, palmyra and coconut palms; protein-rich leaves such as baobab (Adansonia digitata) as well as wild animals (e.g. snails) including insects and larvae.
Vitamin A deficiency: in extreme cases causes blindness and death; responsible for blindness of 250,000 children/year. Forest leaves and fruit are often good source of Vitamin A; e.g. leaves of Pterocarpus sp., Moringa oleifera, Adansonia digitata, the gum of Sterculia sp. palm oil of Elaeus guineensis, bee larvae and other animal food; in addition fats and oils are needed for the synthesis of Vitamin A.
Iron deficiency: in severe cases causes anaemia, weakness and susceptibility to disease, especially in women and children. Wild animals including insects such as tree ants, mushrooms (often consumed as meat substitutes), as well as forest leaves such as Leptadenia hastata, Adansonia digitata.
Niacin deficiency: common in areas with a maize staple diet; can cause dementia, diarrhoea, and dermatitis. Forest fruit and leaves rich in niacin such as Adansonia digitata, fruit of Boscia senegalensis and Momordica balsamina, seeds of Parkia sp., Irvingia gabonensis and Acacia albida.
Riboflavin deficiency: common throughout southeast Asia; among those with rice diets causes skin problems. Forest leaves are especially high in riboflavin, notably Anacardium sp., Sesbania grandiflora, and Cassia obtusifolia, as well as wild animals, especially insects.
Vitamin C deficiency: common to those consuming monotonous diets; increases susceptibility to disease, weakness. Forest fruit and leaves often supply the bulk of Vitamin C consumed, especially good sources include fruit of Ziziphus mauritiana, Adansonia digitata and Sclerocarya caffra; leaves such as Cassia obtusifolia, and the gum of Sterculia sp., are also good sources of this vitamin.

For example, efforts to stabilize the supply and improve the quality of gum arabic to comply with the specifications of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) are presently under way in several African countries. These will include documenting in-depth botanical sources, characteristics and properties of gum arabic produced and traded by these countries, assessing the production systems and reviewing existing quality control systems in each country in order to identify the needed interventions. It is expected that this valuable export product will thereby provide increased employment and income for thousands of people in the countries concerned.


For thousands of years, ecosystems and indigenous populations have evolved in symbiosis. Human societies have gradually moved, at their respective paces, from a dependence on wild foods and particularly upon forest foods to a dependence on domesticated plants and animals on the one hand, and from a subsistence economy to a market economy on the other. In the process, timber and other products of "commercial significance" (i.e. which are the object of international trade) have received increasing importance and indigenous knowledge on the sustainable management of forest resources has been progressively lost. NWFPs have not received the required attention in development planning and forest foods are overlooked in most nutrition programmes.

Forest foods can constitute an important element of sustainable diets. They can broaden the food base and diversify the diet thus preventing nutrient deficiencies and ensuring dietary balance. They come from locally available natural resources, which are part of and/or compatible with the local ecosystem. NWFPs also contribute to household food security and health. Some of them play or could play an important role in local, regional and/or international trade.

These opportunities remain too often unexploited. This is a matter of particular concern in forested areas where the sustainable management of natural resources is a priority and where indigenous groups face severe food and nutrition constraints. In such areas, the promotion of NWFPs could be an important element of sustainable development strategies.

An integrated approach developed on the basis of local needs and resources should be adopted to promote the appropriate management and use of NWFPs. Relevant scientific research by anthropologists or botanists should be reviewed and complemented by community-level research which will seek to retrieve relevant indigenous knowledge and to gain a good understanding of the contributions made by NWFPs to the household economy. Local population groups should be involved from the start in planning and implementing community level activities which will contribute to their household food security and socio-economic development. Particular attention should be given to vulnerable households and to the role of women in the design and implementation of these activities.

The development of technological research and quality standards and the design of communication strategies for better consumer information will be particularly important for the successful marketing of forest foods which have an economic potential.

Foresters have a major role to play in the promotion of NWFPs and this role should not be limited to the design and promotion of sustainable exploitation techniques. It is increasingly recognized that forests should be seen as dynamic systems and that the needs of indigenous people, and particularly household food security and appropriate nutrition, should be taken into account when discussing productivity and environment.

The promotion of NWFPs should not be seen, however, as the sole responsibility of forest departments. All development workers from government or non-governmental institutions operating in or near forested areas particularly agriculture extension workers and health staff should be made aware of the present and potential contribution of NWFPs and should be involved in a concerted effort to promote household food security and appropriate nutrition of the local population on the basis of existing resources.


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1/. The present document has been prepared in conjunction with the theme paper entitled "Socio-Economic Benefits and issues in Non-Wood Foprest products Use" Although it is planned as an independient document, efforts have been made to ensure complementarity of both paper. The reader is referred to the theme paper for further information on issues not directly related to food intake.

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