Forests and food security: back on the global agenda

Recent news headlines, a plethora of scientific publications and the creation of new academic think tanks all reflect growing concerns over how to achieve global food security -- a centerpiece of donor commitments and the focus of many research and development organizations. This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.
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About 40 percent of food in the developing world is produced by smallholder farmers, often in complex multi-functional landscapes, dependent on integrated crop management. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

Recent news headlines, a plethora of scientific publications and the creation of new academic think tanks all reflect growing concerns over how to achieve global food security — a centerpiece of donor commitments and the focus of many research and development organisations.

The renewed emphasis on global food security is stimulated by projections that show the global human population will grow from 7 billion to an estimated 9 billion people by 2050.

Central to the current discourse on food security is the perceived need to increase food production to feed the 870 million people — one in eight worldwide, according to U.N. food agencies — who do not have enough to eat.

Food security concerns are also in the news as the world counts down to 2015, the year the 2000 U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of halving the proportion of hungry people in the world must be met.

Scientific and popular literature alike are replete with calls for increased food production to solve the hunger problem which, according to some estimates, should be up to as much as 100 to 110 percent.

For example, in his 2012 book “One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?”, author Gordon Conway, a professor of international development and director of advocacy group Agriculture for Impact at Imperial College London, emphasizes the importance of reducing hunger and poverty in part by significantly increasing food production.

It is a remarkably compelling and simple concept: more mouths to feed equates to the need to produce more food.

However, the pervasive model of agricultural production is that of intensification, which leads to a need for more fertilizer, more water and quite probably the conversion of remaining natural ecosystems to arable farmland.

The intensification of agriculture experienced through the green revolution of the 1940s to 1970s, which led to the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation and greater use of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, certainly resulted in increased yields, but it also came at the expense of the wider environment.

Furthermore, a paradox of the current model of food production is the inequity that characterizes it.

There are almost one billion hungry and nutrient-poor people on earth, yet more than one billion are overweight or obese, a figure increasing each day – along with many waistlines.

Simply put, each morning many millions of people are facing a daily “feast or famine”.

Some contend we grow enough food to provide a healthy and nutritious diet for current and projected human populations, but uneven distribution, a lack of purchasing power and policies that favour industrial agriculture mean that it often doesn’t reach those that need it most.

Food production need not be solely based on intensive agriculture focused on a few, high-yielding crops.

Estimates show that 40 percent of the food in the developing world is produced by smallholder farmers, often in complex multi-functional landscapes, which depend on integrated crop management.

In addition, recent estimates from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that around 1.6 billion people rely on forests and other natural systems in some way for their diets, health and wider livelihoods.

Forests, and the wider landscapes in which they occur, potentially have a considerable role to play in the emerging strategies to achieve global food security.

Forests not only contribute to diverse and nutritious diets, particularly for the poorest members of society, but also sustain agriculture through the provision of critical ecosystem services such as pollination, soil stabilization and watershed protection.

However, recognition of the role of forests in food security is not new: 1985 was designated the year of Forests and Food Security and a special issue of the FAO journal, Unasylva was subsequently published.

The forests and food security agenda was gradually replaced by other pressing development concerns. Until recently, it was off the agenda altogether.

However, with “mainstream” food security issues coming to the fore, the role of forests in securing nutritional and food security is back in the frame.

This week, the FAO International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome will feature discussion on how we can ensure that sustainable food production can take place without compromising the wider environment.

We seem to have come full circle. Given the evidence, we should not be surprised that the issue of forests and food security is once again at the forefront of the international development agenda: the challenge will be to keep it there.

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