Trees and forests contribute in many ways to improving diets and combating hunger in local communities and rural households. They not only directly provide food and medicines; indirectly, they increase incomes and improve agricultural production, thereby improving access to food. Hunger and malnutrition would be significantly worse if it were not for the contribution of trees and forests to household food security.
FORESTS make a particularly important contribution to the nutrition of the rural poor, who, more than others, are likely to be dependent on trees for a significant part of their income and food supply. Forest-dwelling hunters and gatherers, the world's 300 million shifting cultivators and millions of smallholder and landless households living near forests, in the savannah or growing trees on their farms and compounds depend on trees as part of their survival strategies.
Forest foods can offer vital insurance against famine during times of seasonal food shortages or emergencies such as droughts, floods and wars. It is common for rural households to depend on forest foods between harvests, when harvested stocks have been consumed but the next crops have still to mature. Women in particular count on these resources for supplementary nutrition, emergency foods, fuelwood for cooking and many other important products they need to ensure the nutritional well-being of their families.
One of the main contributions of forests and trees to household nutritional standards is as income. This income may be used to buy staple foods that usually cannot be produced in large quantities in the home garden. In Peru, a hare hunter can earn the equivalent of US$! 350 a month, compared with a labourer's typical wage of $100.
Value of woodland products to the average Zimbabwean household
NEARLY EVERYONE consumes tree foods in one form or another. Innumerable cultivated trees produce food: fruit and nut trees coconut palms plantains, olives and so on. Among the forest fruits that have gained popularity on the world market are avocados, mangos and guavas. Market forces have galvanized production of these fruits - formerly wild or semi-cultivated forest products - in their countries of origin and have lead to their spread to other areas.
Many households throughout the world grow trees in their home gardens, supplementing their diets with fruits, nuts, edible leaves and other foodstuffs. The fruit of the baobab far surpasses the orange's famous Vitamin C content of 57 mg per 100 g of fruit at 360 mg per 100 g, and one variety of jujube reaches levels as high as 1 000 mg per 100 g. Wild leaves contain more riboflavin than eggs, milk, nuts or fish. In Ghana, over 100 wild plant species are valued for their leaves and over 200 for their fruit.
Forest foods are traditionally used to supplement the staple diet, providing vitamins, minerals and proteins that are lacking in starch-based cultivated crop foods. People living near forest reserves in Nigeria consume as much as 84 percent of their animal protein in the form of game. Studies in Zimbabwe's Communal Areas suggest that well over 90 percent of households routinely consume insect protein, mostly in the form of termites. Trees such as coconut and palm provide oils that are essential for cooking and numerous other household uses. Mushrooms and truffles are a source of protein, minerals and variety in diets.
Children in Guinea gathering fruit from the wild
MANY trees produce chemicals to protect themselves from natural predators. These chemicals often have medicinal properties that are critical in maintaining levels of family nutrition. For example, the bark of the Khaya senegalensis is used for intestinal problems in tropical Africa, while the Copaiba tree of the Latin American tropics produces a substance used as an expectorant. Just one variety of yam, found in Mexico, provides the chemical that is the basis of virtually all oral contraceptives. Folk medicine, which relies heavily on plants and the traditional knowledge about them, is the standard source of medical treatment for at least three-quarters of the world's people; some analysts set the figure as high as 90 percent. India has more than 2 000 known medicinal plants, Malaysia around 1 000 and Brazil at least 3 000.
Forest products provide important remedies for animal diseases, helping to safeguard livestock production. The hardiness and resistance or tolerance to diseases and pests of many cultivated crops also depend on biological diversity - the key to improved crop varieties and animal breeds. Woods and forests, particularly in the tropics, are rich depositories of biological diversity.
IN ADDITION to their direct contribution to food supplies, trees provide habitats for I animals, insects and plants that indirectly contribute to human nutrition. Mangrove forests, which cover only about 1 600 km², are essential to the life cycles of many of the world's major commercial fish species. Shrimp, oysters, crabs and countless other edible species of aquatic animals also feed and breed in these forest ecosystems.
Besides being consumed directly, insects contribute to human diets in a number of ways. Honey is universally valued for its high energy content - more than 280 Calories per 100 g The blossoms of forest trees and plants growing below the forest canopy provide a year-round supply of food for bees in the form of nectar and pollen. In India, village-level bee-keeping yields an estimated 37 000 tonnes of honey a year. Similar products extracted directly from trees include sweeteners such as maple syrup and various sugar substitutes.
GOVERNMENTS and forestry institutions can greatly improve the food security of small farmers and the rural poor through the creation of forest policies and forestry institutions that will support the needs of households that depend on trees for a significant part of their nutrition. Local communities need to be able to use forest lands and gather forest products without taxing the environment.
Sustainable agroforestry and tree crop programmes offer numerous strategies that can increase the already large contribution of trees and forests to food production and nutritional well-being. The effective integration of forests into development schemes can help to build on their value. improving nutrition worldwide.
Food from the wild
Some of the many examples of tree foods are:
The sago palm: it is a source of staple food for more than 300 000 people in Melanesia and is used regularly by 1 million more people across the globe. The starch from this palm is an important energy source.
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, http://www.fao.org or gopher.fao.org