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Wild food means good food: CIFOR study

Scattered forest bounty is difficult to track but vital for nutrition.
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Wild foods can play an important role in making good food choices, particularly in areas where buying food at a market can be expensive, such as in Tanzania. Suzanne York.
Wild foods can play an important role in making good food choices, particularly in areas where buying food at a market can be expensive, such as in Tanzania. Suzanne York.

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Africa - In Tanzania, women supplement their families’ diets by collecting foods that grow wild near their homes.

They gather edible species while weeding, they collect wild vegetables they pass on their way to and from their farms, and they’ll take certain routes to collect firewood knowing they’ll pass by spots where sought-after species grow.

In this way, the women provide most of the vegetables that their families eat.

How wild foods like these contribute to nutrition in low- and middle-income countries is part of a new study from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The study, which reviewed existing literature on the subject, found that in some sites wild foods were really important, while in other areas they were hardly consumed at all.

Part of the problem is that wild food studies are inconsistent, making it difficult to compare research from different parts of the world.

“They’re very scattered and the methodology is different from one study to the next,” says lead author on the study, Bronwen Powell, a researcher from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“It’s not that there are no studies that look at it, it’s that there’s no globally comparative data.”

 WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

While wild foods are, by definition, not cultivated or grown at home, they come from a variety of sources and are incorporated into people’s diets in numerous ways. They can be species that grow in the depths of the forest, or right on the forest’s edge.

We know fruits and vegetables have health benefits, we know animal-sourced foods in populations that are micronutrient deficient have benefits

Bronwen Powell

They can grow on old farmland that’s no longer cultivated, or as weeds among managed crops. They can even be once-cultivated species that escaped and are once again growing freely, unmanaged by humans.

Many of the studies in Powell’s review found that such foods comprise a significant portion of diets, and provide many of the micronutrients important to a healthy diet.

Powell’s own research in Tanzania found that wild foods provided 31 percent of vitamin A and 19 percent of iron.

Other research reviewed found that agricultural communities in the Philippines get a range of nutrients from wild foods: 42 percent of their calcium intake, 32 percent of riboflavin, 17 percent of vitamin A, and 13 percent of iron.

But researchers attempting to quantify the nutritional value of wild fruits and vegetables face a serious roadblock.

There’s very little data on which nutrients can be found in which wild foods. Often, researchers find that the same food will have different levels of nutrients from one region to the next, which may be because nutrient levels can be affected by environmental factors like drought, water stress, and pests.

One study in Tanzania, for example, found that levels of zinc and vitamin A in the same foods varied ten-fold from one region to another.

“We know fruits and vegetables have health benefits, we know animal-sourced foods in populations that are micronutrient deficient have benefits,” says Powell.

“If we can show that a significant amount of these nutritionally-important foods are being obtained from the wild, then we know wild foods are making a contribution to dietary quality, even if we don’t know how much iron or vitamin A they contain”

NUTRITION FROM THE WILD

In Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, CIFOR and its partners are working to assess nutrient levels of various wild foods.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is also working on gathering data on nutrient composition of foods from around the world, including wild foods, but such research is expensive and takes quite a long time.

In the meantime, Powell advocates a “whole food” approach, which involves encouraging people to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure they get a variety of nutrients.

“There’s very strong evidence that greater fruits and vegetable consumption means better health outcomes,” Powell says. “So rather than try to recommend, ‘You need this much zinc per day,’ I think it’s much more appropriate that we take an approach of saying, ‘You need this many fruits and vegetables a day.’

I think the forestry community is increasingly committed to the well-being of forest communities and keeping that in mind when they’re looking at forest policy

Bronwen Powell

“Using that approach, then what we found in the review is that wild foods in some contexts can make a very significant contribution to the consumption of fruits and vegetables or animal-sourced foods.”

Powell’s review also found that it’s not enough to simply focus on nutrition. While health plays a role the foods people choose to eat, dietary choices are also heavily impacted by a variety of other factors, including convenience, culture, and habit.

Wild foods can play an important role in making good food choices, particularly in areas where buying food at a market can be expensive and requires more time and travel than simply gathering foods that are growing nearby.

Better understanding the role of wild foods can help create better forest policy.

In Mexico, for example, officials implemented a program where individuals and communities receive payments to conserve forests. But some community members are reporting that their quality of diet has gone down because the extra income isn’t enough to compensate for the wild foods they can no longer gather.

“I think the forestry community is increasingly committed to the well-being of forest communities and keeping that in mind when they’re looking at forest policy,” Powell says.

“But if people only look at income, then they miss some of the importance of wild foods for nutrition.”

Bronwen Powell is post-doctoral researcher at CIFOR. Contact Bronwen at b.powell@cgiar.org

This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry  and funding was also provided by UK Department for International Development and USAID.

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