Despite substantial increases in food production in many countries over the past two decades, the world is still poorly fed. Over 500 million people suffer from malnutrition; and every year about 20 million people die of starvation and its related diseases.
In this situation, it is important that every effort be made to improve nutrition and increase food security, particularly for the rural poor. This publication aims to afford proper recognition to the contribution forests and trees make to the food economies of rural societies. It also outlines the changes that need to be made within forestry institutions to enable them to make a significant contribution to the food security of local communities.
Food security is increased not only by the presence of forests but also by the small stands of trees found in homegardens and on farms. We use the term `cultivated trees' to describe the latter, and reserve the term `forests' for large stands of trees situated outside the homestead or farm, whether such forests are managed or not. Both play major, often little recognized roles in improving food security in rural communities.
Forests and cultivated trees provide many rural dwellers with important sources of food in the form of fruit, nuts, berries, leaves, honey and fungi-and their livestock often depend on fodder gathered from the forest. Although forests and cultivated trees rarely provide the bulk of a human diet, their role in food security is often critical. The wildlife that forests support are often the source of a substantial portion of the animal protein consumed by rural people. As seasonal, supplementary and emergency foods, the fruit, leaves, nuts, roots and oils that forests provide are essential to many people's survival. They are a source of vitamins and nutrients, and of herbs and spices that encourage the consumption of food.
For example, the agropastoralist Tswana are reported regularly to use 126 plant species as food and, in Ghana, more than 100 species of wild plants have been exploited for their leaves, and another 200 are valued for their fruits.
Parts of forest plants and trees are also used in traditional medicines. These medicines stimulate appetite, help the body to utilize nutrients in food, and fight infection.
Tree products provide an extra source of income for the rural poor without which many families would go hungry or become malnourished. Fuelwood and charcoal, rattan and other materials for furniture making, tendu leaves for cigarette manufacture, gum arabic for a variety of industrial uses, numerous oils and resins, dyes and medicines are all sold by the rural poor. They enable millions of the poorest people in the world to earn the cash they need to avoid starvation.
Forests and agroforestry systems also play important roles in stabilizing agriculture's resource base, for example, by slowing down soil erosion by wind and water and reducing sedimentation in rivers. In some cases, trees improve and enrich agricultural soil and help stabilize water supplies, thus improving soil productivity and making sustainable cultivation of marginal lands possible. Trees also exert important influences on micro-climates, thereby improving agricultural production.
Food from the forest: coconut (left), fruit of the baobab tree (centre) and fungi (right).
These effects benefit large numbers of people in developing countries. More than 300 million shifting cultivators world-wide depend on forests for their food production systems and the maintenance of the productivity of their land; millions of southeast Asians depend largely on fish supplies which flourish in mangrove forests; and hunters and gatherers throughout the world rely to a large extent on the forest for food. Many rural farmers also depend on foods from forest and farm trees, particularly those that can be processed and stored, to supplement their diets and tide them through seasonal food shortages and emergencies such as drought or flood.
Cultivated trees, like the forests themselves, play important roles in the food economies of rural people.
Forests have been recklessly cleared in many parts of the world, and we are today only beginning to count the cost in terms of increased soil erosion and flooding. No one has yet managed to determine the cost in terms of worsening diets and loss of income; these costs must, however, be considerable.
The ways in which forests and cultivated trees have an impact on food security are outlined in the diagram below.