On the Menu: Forests

BOGOR, Indonesia (10 February, 2012)_For almost as long as our species has lived on earth, we have fed ourselves directly from the bounty of forests, grasslands and other wild places. Now a largely urban species, having multiplied greatly and changed the face of the earth, we often forget or grossly misunderstand the continuing role of forests in feeding what are now the world’s billions.
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BOGOR, Indonesia (10 February, 2012)_For almost as long as our species has lived on earth, we have fed ourselves directly from the bounty of forests, grasslands and other wild places. Now a largely urban species, having multiplied greatly and changed the face of the earth, we often forget or grossly misunderstand the continuing role of forests in feeding what are now the world’s billions.

A special issue of the International Forestry Review on “Forests, Biodiversity, and Food Security” is taking a step toward rectifying that knowledge gap. Bringing together nine articles by a multidisciplinary and international group of authors — many of them pioneers in the field — editors Terry Sunderland and Alan Pottinger aim to dispel the common myth that forests have ceased to be important to food security, especially as our numbers and needs grow and change. They have put together articles that focus on a variety of approaches and perspectives, as well as a wealth of data and analysis on the question of what forests contribute to food security, nutrition, and human wellbeing.

Together these contributions demonstrate convincingly that two of today’s greatest challenges are not irreconcilable goals: the need to protect forests and the multiple ecosystem services they provide, and the imperative to feed an increasing human population. But these articles, individually and as a group, also show that the links between forests and food security are multidimensional, complex, and often difficult to see, to document and to measure. The key to understanding both the significance of the linkages and the difficulty of measuring them is appreciating diversity in its various forms and dimensions.

The “Editorial” that opens the issue begins with the affirmation that “Forests are a considerable source of biodiversity and, as such, are inextricably linked to people’s food security, nutrition and health in a number of fundamental ways.” Several of the articles that follow detail just how forest biodiversity — at genetic, species, and system levels — contributes to feeding both the world’s rural and urban populations.

With around one billion people reliant on wild harvested products for food and income, the direct contribution of forests to diets is considerable and often crucial, if often hidden from urban and official eyes. For instance a study by Nasi, Taber and Van Vliet provides data showing that approximately 4.5 million tons of bush meat is extracted annually from the Congo Basin forests alone! This direct food contribution adds not only considerable calories but also much needed protein and micronutrients to the diets of local populations.

The importance of forests’ direct contribution to food production may actually be eclipsed by the inputs they make to food production outside forests. As Sunderland suggests in the article entitled “Food security: why is biodiversity important?” much more needs to be understood about the “natural capital” that forests provide to agriculture, including documenting regulation of water flow and quality, provision of pollination services and germplasm for crop improvement, maintenance of nutrient cycling and soil fertility, mitigation of climatic extremes, control of agricultural pests and diseases and other essential functions. These services “all rely to a greater or lesser extent on biodiversity, or components of it; processes that are critical to the maintenance of agricultural systems” including the most modern agribusinesses.

But fully understanding the links between forests and food security requires appreciation, not only of biological diversity, but also of the social and cultural diversity of those who use, manage, manipulate and even create forests and agroforests. Several of the articles detail the complex, divergent and changing linkages between forests, nutrition and health among people of different cultural traditions, between groups who have long lived in a particular place and those newly arrived, and between men and women, with the gender issues surrounding food security comprehensively discussed by Wan and Colfer.

Appreciation of biological and cultural diversity is central to understanding forests and food, and the wealth of resources, services, knowledge, and practice that diversity produces. This is the core message of most of the stories told in this Special Issue. But that richness is also one reason why forests’ crucial role in food security goes unappreciated. Waving fields of grain ripening in the sun and harvested in one brief season are far easier to see, measure, and understand than the “more than 400 plant species … sourced from a wide range of habitats and subject to varying degrees of management” identified by Laird, Awung, Lysinge and Ndive as the forest-derived resources that support communities around Mount Cameroon in Central Africa.

This Special Issue illustrates one way to begin to understand the confounding diversity but crucial importance of forests’ contributions to the food security of rural and urban populations alike. This compendium suggests the answer lies again in diversity: a diversity of approaches, perspectives, methods, and tools.

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