The value of trees for food and nutrition

fruit DRC

Photo: Lokoleyacongo

“What are trees and forests going to do to help ‘hidden hunger’, the deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals that affects more than 2 billion people,” asks Ramni Jamnadass, Domain Leader for Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery at the World Agroforestry Centre.

Ramni and colleagues are compiling comprehensive information on the direct and indirect roles of trees in food and nutrition that will feed into international forums such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals, 2 of which directly address ‘hidden hunger’

They plan to demonstrate how forests, trees and agroforestry benefit the livelihoods of around 1.6 billion people through providing fruit, fodder, timber and fuel, as well as environmental services, including soil fertility, erosion control and pollination.

Their information will appear in an assessment by the Global Forest Expert Panel on the diverse roles of forests and trees in food security, dietary diversity and nutrition.

The assessment and some of its preliminary findings were discussed during a session on Trees for Food and Nutrition during Tree Diversity Day, organized by the World Agroforestry Centre at the 12th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP12) in Pyeongchang, Korea.

The Global Forest Expert Panel was formed by the Collaborative Partnerships on Forests in 2006, led by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) which has 700 members worldwide, including the World Agroforestry Centre.

As Christoph Wildburger, a consultant on environmental policy and natural research management explained, the assessment will provide interdisciplinary and scientifically sound information from experts around the world and highlight key issues.

The contribution of the World Agroforestry Centre to the assessment will look first and foremost at the direct benefits of trees, focusing especially on fruit trees as they contain high levels of both micronutrients and macronutrients.

In her presentation at Tree Diversity Day, Ramni provided an overview of research from Western Kenya which found, through recall studies, that only 28 per cent of households had eaten fruit the day before.

“We are now developing what we call fruit tree portfolios,” explained Ramni. “These show the types of fruit trees that are available on farms, at what times of the year and what nutrients they contain.”

“If we see a ‘hunger’ gap when fruits are not available, we can identify species that can be grown to produce food at these times.”

Ramni believes there is huge potential for indigenous species to address hidden hunger, such as the baobab tree in Africa which is high in nutrients. Ramni says there are hundreds of useful species out there which don’t find their way onto the table because the world does not know about them. “There has been very little investment in indigenous tree species.”

Patrick Van Damme from the University of Ghent Belgium elaborated further on how forests and trees on farm have the potential to provide diversity in diets, yet edible and nutritional species are often not fully utilized.

“Only 30 species provide 95% of energy and protein needs in the world,” said Van Damme. “While there are 250,000 to 270,000 plants formally described as suitable for consumption only 30,000 of these are used.”

He provided results from a study in the diverse tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Local people were found to know about the existence of 166 wild edible plants but only ate around 15 of them. Analysis of local diets revealed people were not getting the quantity of energy, vitamin and minerals they should, despite the fact that the forests where they live contain a wide diversity of edible and nutritious plants.

The contribution of World Agroforestry Centre scientists to the Global Forest Expert Panel assessment will also analyze the indirect benefits of trees, such as income from plantations and agroforestry systems.

For example, the charcoal industry in Africa is worth more than US 11 billion and employs more than 7 million people. There is enormous potential to improve sustainability in this sector with trees that are fast growing, short rotational and which burn cleaner.

The environmental services provided by trees will be addressed too. Studies show that the further you go from forests the fewer pollinators you get. In Costa Rica, coffee farms less than 1km from the forest produce 20 per cent higher yields.

Ramni concluded her presentation by talking about areas where further research is needed, such as on developing nutrition-sensitive value chains. “Many products, as they progress through the value chain, lose their nutritional value. How can we work with the private sector to keep nutritional values?”

Van Damme called for urgent investigation into what species contribute which kind of nutrients to local diets. “Formal nutrient content data need to be part of the criteria for cultivar development and promotion, and this information has to be compiled centrally and disseminated,” he said.

If we can combine the best of traditional knowledge about edible indigenous plants with more formal scientific knowledge – such as that which is being compiled for the Global Forest Expert Panel assessment– this will be a significant step towards increasing the productivity and utilization of trees and forests for food security and nutrition, and hopefully help to minimize hidden hunger.

View the presentations from this event on SlideShare:

Trees for Food and Nutrition

Find out more about the World Agroforestry Centre’s participation at CBD COP12'

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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