“A dirt path in a forest on a bright day” by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

Forests that feed us

What they do and how we can help

First things first, what’s a forest? It can mean many things from scattered trees in dry landscapes to dense, close canopy old-growth forests in high rainfall areas. A forest can be an administrative unit, a type of land cover or a type of land use. Agroforestry refers to systems where trees are used on the same land as other crops or animals. All these share the common characteristic of trees being closely linked to agriculture and food production, and therefore, to food security and nutrition.

Who do forests feed?

People or communities who rely to some extent on forests and trees for their livelihood are forest-dependent. This includes indigenous peoples, rural dwellers, smallholder farmers or people employed in the formal or informal sectors. Between 1 to 1.7 billion people can be considered forest-dependent.

How do forests contribute to food production?

Forests and trees contribute to food production through four main channels. The first is the direct provision of food such as fruit or seeds. The second is supplying energy in the form of fuel wood for cooking. The third is income generation and employment such as those who are employed to work in forests. The fourth is the provision of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, the purification of water and climate regulation.

How can we support our forests?

Now we’ve established how important forests and to those who rely on them, what can we do to help ? In 2017 the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) endorsed a set of policy recommendations targeted at governments and other stakeholders. It identified five main areas which need attention.

1 Recognize how important forests are

We need to acknowledge the contribution of forests and trees in supporting agricultural production and the vital role they play in sustainable development. We need to recognize and respect traditional practices and the key contribution of indigenous peoples, local communities and smallholders in managing forests sustainably.

2 Get more data

Policy makers and practitioners need to be informed on the importance of sustainable forest and tree management. Capacity should be developed and professional training provided as well as the organizational changes needed for participatory research, better data collection and extension services. Data, disaggregated by gender, age and social parameters, should be collected on the use of wild foods (animals, plants, mushrooms) and other forest products. More research is needed on the contribution of neglected and underutilized species and more knowledge is needed on the diversity of forest genetic resources that are likely to meet human food needs.

3 Forest friendly policies

An integrated policy approach is needed across the nexus of forests, agriculture, water and food. Such policies should also ensure adequate funding is available to support forests. Forest planning and management should be done in a participatory way to ensure that nutritionally important forest food products are supported and forest conservation is promoted. Incentives should be given for forest-based ecosystem services that benefit sustainable agriculture and food production. Ways to protect the rights of women should also be considered.

4 More investment and research

Investment in research should promote and scale up good practices in forest management, land use, and biodiversity conservation. The nutritional importance of forest products should also be recognized. Extension services and training, particularly for vulnerable groups, should be provided and sustainable forest management plans should help to achieve multiple benefits. An example of this is ensuring adequate access to fuel wood as well as investment in technical innovations that minimize the health risks associated with its burning.

5 Recognize tenure and provide access to markets

Recognize that the communities who rely on forests need secure tenure and access. Those who produce food from forests depend on adequate access to markets. Any investment in the sector should be responsible and ethical.

These policy recommendations were based on the report “Sustainable forestry for food security and nutrition” by the CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. They were endorsed by the 126 countries who are members of CFS. You can find the full text of the policy recommendations here. If these policies are applied, it will help ensure that that the communities that rely on forests for their livelihoods continue to thrive.