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Forests play a crucial role in providing food security. They are veritable storehouses of biological diversity, and forest products are the mainstay of households worldwide. As living systems, forests have a vital role in maintaining the ecological base for food security. Even so, if is common to find that public and private planners "fail to see the forest for the trees, " underestimating or even ignoring the value of these resources.

Forests for Food

Forests contribute directly to the diets of forest dwellers and of many who live far beyond the woods. Forest fruits nuts and berries, for instance, are popular with urban as well as rural consumers. These and many other forest foods add variety and flavour to diets while providing essential vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins. During times of seasonal food shortages or emergencies - caused, for example, by droughts, floods or wars - forest foods also offer vital insurance against malnutrition or famine. Leaves - used as flavouring in soups, stews and relishes - and mushrooms are the most common forest foods. Animal foods include a large variety of both invertebrates, such as edible insects, and vertebrates, including mammals, birds and fish.

Forests for Income

For rural people, especially those with little or no land of their own, forests may provide the main source of cash income. This income does not come from wood harvesting only. Non-wood forest resources can often generate greater, more sustainable incomes than can be gained from the same land when used for agriculture or logging. World trade in rattan, for instance, is worth US$2 000 million annually. In India alone, forest-based industries support 30 million people.

Forests for Livestock

Forests provide fodder and rangeland for 30 to 40 million pastoralists worldwide who herd some 4 000 million cattle, goats and sheep. Trees help to protect pastoral rangelands, providing shade for cattle and crops and thereby supporting livestock production. Nonetheless, while livestock are increasing in number, the area available for grazing is being reduced because of conversion to crop production.

Forests and the Environment

Forests and trees greatly contribute to maintaining the ecological balance. The integration of trees within agricultural schemes sustains crop production by improving soil fertility. Trees help to control water and wind erosion and they recycle vital nutrients, such as nitrogen, back into the soil. Trees also grow where agricultural crops might fail, allowing production on marginal lands. As they grow, trees absorb and store carbon dioxide (CO2). Deforestation -especially by burning - releases a great amount of stored CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Forests and medicine For 75 to 90 percent of the people in developing countries, natural products represent the only source of medicine. The active ingredients found in 25 percent of prescription drugs come from medicinal plants. Nearly all of the so-called alternative medicines are also based on plant extracts. The estimated value of plant-based drugs is nearly US$45 000 million a year.

Cases in Point

  • In the Peruvian Amazon, more than 80 percent of animal protein comes from bushmeat. In Botswana, the springhare provides meat equivalent to that from some 20 000 heads of cattle.
  • In the United States, non-wood forest products are worth more than $130 million a year in industry revenues and employ at least 10 000 people full time. The bark of the Western Yew tree is harvested in quantities exceeding 350 tonnes a year. It yields the drug taxol, an anticancer agent. Formerly a throwaway by-product in the eyes of Local foresters, trade in yew bark now-provides an alternative livelihood for an army of local "pickers", including many loggers who were out of work as a result of declining markets in timber and wood products.
  • Rattan is the most important non-timber forest product of Southeast Asia, contributing to a world trade of about US$2 000 million a year. In Indonesia, the rattan industry employs 83 000 to 100 000 people and exports are worth $90 million a year. In Malaysia, the annual turnover is $35 million, about half of which is exported.
  • The per caput consumption of mushrooms during the rainy season in Zimbabwe can be as high as 1.8 kg. The fungi, commonly valued as meat substitutes, supply surprisingly Large amounts of protein (up to 45 9 per 100 9 dry weight in some cases) and essential minerals. Over 20 tonnes of mushrooms are gathered and consumed by the 700 000 residents of the Upper Shaba area of Zaire every year.


Forests and Biological Diversity

Forests are among the most important living genebanks on earth. Many of the foods we consume today originated as wild crops in the forests. Genetic improvement has much to gain from existing wild species, which may possess valuable traits that can be incorporated into their cultivated relatives to make them hardier and more disease-resistant. If deforestation is not controlled, however, it could be the single greatest cause of species loss over the next 50 years.

Forests for Energy

Wood energy is drawing increasing attention as an environmentally friendly source of energy. Wood is still people's main source of fuel for cooking, processing and preserving food, and will continue to be for many years to come. Worldwide, 2 000 million people depend on wood for cooking, a basic step in ensuring proper nutrition. In many developing countries, fuelwood supplies as much as 97 percent of total energy consumption. Wood-based energy systems are the most readily available in many areas and, when properly managed, they are not only versatile and sustainable but also effective in generating income and jobs.

Forests for Habitat

Forests are home to 300 million people around the world who depend on shifting cultivation, hunting and gathering to survive. The needs of forest dwellers have often been overlooked in development plans and their lives are becoming increasingly precarious as population pressures encroach on the land available for shifting cultivation.

Forests and Culture

Traditionally, the importance of forests and trees has been clearly recognized by cultures worldwide. Trees have featured throughout history: in religion and folklore and are often described as God's gift to humans. They are recognized for their regenerative nature and are associated with health, marital harmony and longevity. For these and other reasons, forests are carefully protected by traditional societies.

Forests and Security

The effective integration of forests into agricultural, economic and development schemes - carefully planned according to local needs and circumstances has great potential for increasing food security for present and future generations. On the other hand, the continuing loss of vital forest resources causes damage that is, in many cases, irreversible. By designing and implementing integrated schemes for the management of forests at the national and international levees, governments can strengthen and renew their crucial role in relieving the burden of hunger and poverty throughout the world.

The Role of Trees in the Carbon Cycle

During the day, trees absorb CO2 through photosynthesis
At night, some CO2 - generally less than is absorbed during the day - is returned to the atmosphere through respiration
Burning and, to a lesser extent decomposition release the stored CO2
The CO2 is stored in the biomass (wood, leaves, etc.)

What Forests Provide











Timber products

For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Forestry Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-4175
Internet, or

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