Contact us:

Re: Forests and trees provide benefits for food security and nutrition– what is your say?

Kamal Karunagoda Socio Economics and Planning Center Department of Agriculture, Sri Lanka

Three crops in forests, trees on farms and agro-forestry systems provide an important source of food for households in rural areas. Different types of vegetables, fruits, berries, yams, leafy vegetables, spices, bee honey, honey produced from plant saps and many other types of foods and beverages come from these sources.  Characteristics of these food sources are widely varied among different agro-ecological regions and these differences could be utilized to improve food diversity and food security of households.  The other advantages are low input nature of production and the produce is mostly organic by default. 

The tree crops help to improve households’ coping capacity to food insecurity that may arise due to seasonality crop production or crop failure. I have witnessed the capacity of these tree crops to supplement food during the period of food shortages.  The households enjoy the blessing of tree crops that provided many types of foods and beverages (coffee,  cocoa, pepper, mangoes, bananas, papaya, custard apples, sapodilla, guavas, rambutan, oranges, avocado, limes, pineapples, coconuts, jack fruits, bread fruit, yams, chilli, ginger, turmeric, leafy vegetables form tree crops).  There are many types of medicinal plants that serves the villagers’ needs free of any charge.    The agro-forestry systems’ capacity and potentials have been witnessed for generations and it could be promoted and protected to improve food security of households.  

Food diversity of rural households shows a declining trend during the period of past few decades and tree crops can be effectively utilize to improve food diversity of rural households. The regions with more access to tree crops in their food systems show less incidents of malnutrition than regions with mono-crops.  Some products from these systems are being channeled to urban niche markets.  However, due to low levels of supply and long marketing channels, prices of available products remain high and products are not affordable to the urban poor. 

If valued properly, in terms of nutrition, environmental services or monetary value, it would reveal the value of the system as well as the luxury of consumption of these food products.  Therefore, obtaining statistics related to production and consumption and valuation of total economic benefits of these resources would be a challenge. 

  Any agricultural development plan should recognize the important features and capacity of the tree crops to provide food for households vis a vis seasonal crops.  In reality such measures are rare and therefore, prior evaluation is needed to identify the capacity tree crops in a given region to supplement food requirements of households. Once identified, the development plans should accommodate appropriate measures to conserve available systems and its supporting topography. 

Land clearance for seasonal crops, construction of houses and removal of trees due to other socio-economic reasons are the main causes of system’s degradationThis situation has serious implications on food security and valuable plant genetic resources.  A concerted effort is imperative for conservation and development of these resources.  It requires implementation of prudent land development planning as well as land use planning system.  These requirements have been identified but implementation is a challenge.    

Tree crops provide many benefits but absence of reliable data may results low level of policy attention.  Investments and incentives for conservation, promotion of cultivation and investments on innovations (research and development, conservation methods, etc) are imperative for the proper utilization and development of these resources.  Conservation effort would require establishment of field gene banks and provision of incentives for conservation within the existing agro-forestry systems.   Another alternative for conservation is replanting of manmade-non-food-timber forests with multipurpose timber-cum-food trees. 

These production systems show signs of degradation, in terms of area, productivity and diversity.  There are many reasons associated with this trend.  Lands have fragmented into small units due to due to population pressure.  Land fragmentation causes a severe threat to presence of tree crops in gardens. People may not like to see big trees around houses.  There are many concerns such as danger of falling fruits, falling of trees due to strong winds and  possible damage  caused by expanding roots to the foundation of buildings, etc.  So we need innovations for small to medium tress or improved supply of services such as services of arborists, to make trees fit into small gardens. 

Indigenous knowledge is associated with tapping and processing of some products from tree crops.  A disruption to the transfer of this traditional knowledge can be observed and it is associated mainly with the changes in socio-economic environment.  Lack of such knowledge would make these resources idle and it may give a wrong economic signal to the owners of resources to invest resources in alternative uses. Inclusion of traditional knowledge in local educational and agricultural extension systems and simple innovations to overcome difficulties of traditional processing systems would facilitate effective utilization of resources and their conservation efforts.  The benefits of these systems could also be transferred to urban centers through appropriate promotion of marketing and cultivation of tree crops as a part of urban agriculture. 

Kamal Karunagoda

Agricultural Economist

Sri Lanka