A bit of baobab a day keeps the doctor away: wild fruits help solve Africa’s malnutrition crisis

The fruits of the giant baobab tree have up to 20 times the Vitamin C of mango and 30 times the calcium. asfd01/Flickr

HYDERABAD, India (22 October, 2012)_Indigenous fruit tree species cultivated by local farmers could bring huge nutritional gains to malnourished regions of Africa where consumption of fruit and other nutritional tree products is among the lowest in the world, experts say.

“The unavailability and high cost of fruits is largely to blame for the widespread Vitamin C, A and mineral deficiencies in African countries,” said Ramni Jamnadass, head of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)’s Quality Trees Program, at Tree Diversity Day held last week on the sidelines of the 11th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Hyderabad, India.

“However in most of sub-Saharan Africa, tree domestication has not received much attention for over three decades. Hardly any formal domestication has been undertaken for highly nutritious indigenous species, despite the contribution of wild fruit trees to food security.”

Poor nutrition and ‘hidden hunger’ —a chronic deficiency of vitamins and minerals— in developing countries in Africa and Asia is related to low consumption of fruits, nuts, and other nutritious tree products such as honey.

Sub-Saharan African countries are at the tail-end of fruit consumption rates in the world: no region meets the World Health Organisation’s recommended daily intake of 200 grams per person. East Africa has the lowest intake, at 36 grams of fruit per day.

“The fruits of the giant baobab tree, which is native to many parts of Africa, have up to 20 times the Vitamin C of mango and 30 times the calcium, yet these fruits are still not routinely consumed by many African adults,” Jamnadass said.

Preliminary research by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has shown that African children living in areas with substantial tree cover generally have healthier diets than those living far from trees.

Using nationally representative  health survey data of 140,000 children under the age of five from over 9,400 communities in sub-Saharan Africa, CIFOR scientist Amy Ickowitz and her colleagues found that as tree cover increased from zero up to 61 percent, so too did children’s diets become more diverse. Once tree cover reached 61 percent of the landscape, however, children’s diets became less diverse.

However Ickowitz noted that since almost all people surveyed lived in areas with less than 61 percent tree cover, the relationship between tree cover and better nutrition is positive for the vast majority of children.

“More work needs to be done on the ground to understand if people in forested areas actually eat more nutritious forest foods, or whether they practice agroforestry and so are growing these foods on their farms,” she said.

Also we need to understand whether the crops that are grown in forested regions are actually more nutritious.”

It’s no coincidence that people close to trees and forests are healthier, according to Jamnadass.

With forest clearing—both legal and illegal—to meet the needs and wants of a burgeoning human population, wild harvesting can no longer satisfy the ever-growing needs for tree products.

“Once upon a time, 70 percent of the earth’s surface was covered by forest, which supplied humans with all the tree products they needed – from fruits to wood to medicines, and much more.”

Fast-forward 100 years to the present, when 13 million hectares of the world’s forests are being lost each year.

“With forest clearing—both legal and illegal—to meet the needs and wants of a burgeoning human population, wild harvesting can no longer satisfy the ever-growing needs for tree products,” Jamnadass said.

Even for popular fruit trees like mango, most farmers continue to grow inferior trees, using poor husbandry, harvesting and storage techniques, she said, due to low levels of local technical expertise in horticulture and poor value chain development in most developing countries.

A well-coordinated tree domestication campaign could address the twin problem of malnutrition and loss of forest cover, she said. Such a campaign should focus on tree species whose fruits, nuts, vegetables, and medicines have been harvested from forests over millennia but are now fast-disappearing, including baobab (Adansonia digitata), tamarind (Tamarindus indica), marula (Sclerocarya birrea) and chocolate berry (Vitex doniana).

Though 560 million people, including many small-scale farmers in the tropics, already live on farmlands with more than 10 percent tree cover, researchers have only scratched the surface of the massive potential benefits of farm-grown trees for nutrition. According to recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, a mere 25 species of tree-derived commodities generated US$126 billion in export revenue.

“Experience from commodity tree crops points to several important considerations if the gains in tree domestication and agroforestry are to reach smallholder farmers,” Jamnadass said.

These include the need to better appreciate the role of tree genetic diversity, protecting natural stands of wild species even after domestication, estimate the value of wild genetic resources, control international agreements on transfer of plant genetic resources, and share the benefits fairly.

“By cultivating the trees products we need on farms, we can raise nutrition levels, alleviate poverty, and at the same time help relieve the pressure on forests, whose biodiversity provides life-supporting environmental services that keep the planet livable.”

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Dr. Ramni Jamnadass and Dr. Amy Ickowitz spoke at Tree Diversity Day, an event organized by the CGIAR Collaborative Research Program on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry at the 11th UN Convention on Biodiversity Conference of Parties in Hyderabad, India, 8-19 October 2012.