DG’s Column

Boosting both food security and forest resources requires new thinking

The need to think of forests and agriculture as inextricably linked - parts of a greater "landscape".
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Forests have supplied food for humans for millennia.

Forests have supplied food for humans for millennia.

The goal of producing enough food for a growing population has long been at the top of the global political agenda. But in pursuit of this aim, agriculture has expanded into forestland, creating an array of environmental problems: more than 50 percent of the Earth’s forests have disappeared, and an area of forest about the size of the state of Louisiana has been lost every year in the past decade. At the same time, half of the food produced in the world is wasted.

We now face a dilemma: how can nutritious and affordable food be supplied to the 9.6 billion people who are due to occupy the Earth in 2050 without accelerating deforestation and climate change, destroying biodiversity, hurting rural livelihoods and disrupting water supplies? How can agriculture and forestry contribute positively to social, economic and environmental progress?

This is a difficult equation to solve, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. In recent decades, 90 percent of increases in food production have been realized on existing agricultural land. Scaling up investments in sustainable land use can improve productivity even further. Global deforestation is slowing somewhat and forests are expanding in regions whose economies are not highly dependent on agriculture. So far, we are managing to coax from the land not only enough food for everyone, but also wood and non-wood products. And with growing appreciation of the importance of forests for ecosystem services, income and nutrition, we can expect natural resources management to make a broader contribution to sustainable development.

But first we need to accurately understand the food security challenge. We will not succeed if we persist in defining it as merely a need to produce more calories. The 870 million people who do not have enough food are hungry mainly because they are poor—not because of a lack of food on the market. Simply producing more corn or wheat will ultimately be of little help to these people.

The focus on producing more calories has done little to tackle the “hidden hunger,” in which 2 billion people worldwide are micronutrient deficient. In Indonesia, a G20 country, more than a third of all children are physically stunted, largely because of a lack of important nutrients in their diets: protein, vitamins and minerals like iron. Agricultural subsidies in countries such as the United States undermine local farming in developing and emerging economies. Furthermore, cheaper staple food is consumed at the expense of a more varied diet, including foods from forests.

If we target better nutrition, not just more food, the importance of forests comes into focus. Forests have supplied food for humans for millennia. Forest foods—from fruits, vegetables and herbs to insects and bushmeat—are still vital sources of nutrition for hundreds of millions of people, many of whom are among the world’s poorest. Six million tons of bushmeat is consumed in the Congo Basin each year—nearly the same as the amount of beef exported from Brazil. In rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, children’s diets become more diverse—and diversity is a widely accepted proxy for good nutrition—with an increase in tree cover.

Forests support food security indirectly also, by maintaining water suppliesproviding wood-based energy and providing habitat for wild pollinators and the predators of agricultural pests. Forests and trees bolster the resilience of food-production systems to climate change and economic, social and political instability: studies have shown that rural people in forested areas often turn to the forest for sustenance when the growing season—or the local political situation—takes a turn for the worse. Research conducted by my organization and others has found that 1.4 billion people earn on average 20 percent of their income from forests—a critical safety net, especially when crops fail.

Clearly, a new direction is needed for policy affecting both forests and food security. Researchers, policy-makers and everyone in between must think of forests and agriculture as inextricably linked—parts of a greater “landscape” that comprises not just the dynamic relationship between forests and farms, but also the socioeconomic, gender, cultural and political drivers that characterize it. Forests are direct economic and nutritional cornucopias for a quarter of humanity, and they prop up global food supplies for the rest of us. A landscape approach removes the sectoral boundaries that confine our analysis and limit our solutions.

A landscape approach may come naturally to rural communities where sectoral boundaries are less prominent and livelihoods often benefit from a variety of activities, and where the synergies between, say, trees and farming may be evident.

A bigger challenge will be to convince traditional institutions in agriculture, conservation and forestry that they should seek more effective, combined solutions that meet multiple objectives. It does not help that intergovernmental processes, such as the Convention on Climate Change, work within established sectoral boundaries. The main hurdle may be the institutional fences dividing forests and fields. The nourishment of 9 billion people, and the sustainable management of the resources on which they depend, will require all of us—scientists, governments, farmers, development experts—to think and act differently.

This article first appeared on Blog World Hunger.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) will co-host a policy seminar on Food, Forests and Landscapes: Solutions for Sustainable Development. Watch the live stream here on Monday, 24 June 2013, 12:15 pm to 1:45 pm EDT.

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  • Sectoral boundaries may well be limiting effective policy development and it is well worth examining how examples of current good multi-sectoral practice can be further built on. But it is also worth noting, as you did at the recent IUFROLAT conference (http://theiufroblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/iufrolat-iii-keynote-address-highlights-peter-holmgren-cifor/), that robust evidence-based frameworks might be very useful tools for linking research with policy and, certainly, for identifying evidence gaps that undoubtedly exist in this area. The seminar did not make this point either though it did address the importance of working across disciplines to achieve the desired result, which is central to evidence-based policy and practice in other disciplines.

  • Promode Kant

    A thought provoking blog by Peter as always. The importance of food security, both the quantity of calories and the quality of intake, for the global population expected to cross 9 billion mark in just about two decades is obvious. Forests contribute to the food security by enhancing ecological security as Peter has argued with such clarity. But I would be a little circumspect about the extent to which the forests can also be a source of food except to the people living within or in close proximity to the forests. I do not see forests as a major supplier of bush meat, and even non-meat foods, to the larger population outside and if the data cited on annual consumption (of 6 million tons) of bush meat in the Congo basin, comparable to the Brazilian meat exports, is correct it would worry me greatly. For two reasons. One the manner of hunting, mostly by trapping, is a devastatingly cruel way of procuring human food. Second, for those who have had opportunity to see trapping in wild it would also be obvious that the largest number of animals trapped are young, inexperienced and careless. And when a lactating female is trapped, which is often, one is sure of seeing the end of the entire litter.

    So wild hunting as practiced by food gatherers (as distinct from sport hunting) tend to reduce the reproductive base of a wild population, not its ‘supernumerary’ males. Which is never sustainable, certainly not when consuming population is rising so fast. The hunting communities generally do have an elaborate system of self-restraint in hunting but the changing times and increasing population have taken a heavy toll on the community based ecologically sound practices. And enforcing evidence based secular regulations in wilderness by government departments that involves collecting credible evidence acceptable to the courts, even if it were possible to address corruption, is a near impossibility.

    My take on forest and food security is, therefore, a little different from Peter. Forests are of central importance for ecological security – hydrology, soil stability and soil nutrition, and a vast repertoire of genetic treasure – which in turn ensures food security. And directly also forests enhance food security of the forest and forest fringe dwellers.

    Beyond that the burden of ensuring food security may not fall on the rather fragile shoulders of forests! Sometimes, the sectoral boundaries, or institutional fences as Peter calls them rather evocatively, are not altogether a bad idea. They deflect pressure.