Our food systems are failing. Can trees and forests provide better nutrition for all?

Spice and fruit agroforestry system: the tree is Ziziphus mauritiana, also known as Indian jujube, with Curcuma longa or curcuma below in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by Devashree Nayak/ICRAF.

Despite all the technological and informational advances of the past decades, we have so far failed to feed our global population in an adequate, safe, nutritious and sustainable way.

More than 2 billion people are food insecure; nearly 700 million are undernourished; and 39% of all adults are classified as overweight or obese.

A major factor in these health issues is that there is a serious lack of dietary diversity: only 15 crops provide 90% of humanity’s energy intake and not enough nutrient-dense foods are produced for everyone. world. For example, only 40 countries, representing 26% of the world’s population, have sufficient supplies of fruits and vegetables to meet the recommended daily consumption.

Meanwhile, our global food system generates more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions; absorbs about 70% of all freshwater withdrawals; and is responsible for around a quarter of ocean acidification, as well as severe soil depletion and the destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity.

“It is increasingly clear that nothing less than a radical transformation of food systems will end hunger and malnutrition in the world while reducing to acceptable limits the environmental damage that our food systems have already caused. “, say the authors of a new point of view in the July 2022 edition of the leading magazine, Lancet Planet Health.A new global food system must produce greater amounts of a more diverse range of nutrient-dense foods rather than just providing more calories. It must also produce these diverse foodstuffs in a sustainable way, reversing current trajectories of land degradation so that production acts as a net carbon sink and a reservoir of biodiversity.

So how can we help bring about this change?

As the authors point out, trees and forests have an essential role to play.

To date, this has been largely overlooked in food system transformation conversations “due to the lack of a holistic and systemic approach to food systems, issues around measuring and recording multiple contributions trees and forests, and the emphasis on forests as sources of timber rather than food… A perspective that we believe is at risk of being misrepresented in current discourses of the international development community that view trees and forests primarily as global carbon stores,” the authors write.

So how can we help bring about this change? As the view points out, trees and forests are an essential, but still unrecognized, part of the solution.

“We were surprised and disappointed that despite all we’ve learned and what we feel are the obvious important roles of forests and trees, they still seem to be largely ignored,” said lead author Amy Ickowitz. of the study and senior researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

“Conserving forests and promoting trees for food security and nutrition are some of the obvious ways to achieve ‘win-win’ goals, which are rare enough to meet the enormous challenges of global malnutrition, decreasing biodiversity and climate change,” she said. “Of course, there are obstacles – institutional, economic and logistical – but they can all be overcome, once it is agreed that food systems need to be pushed in this direction. In our view, we offer some suggestions on how to proceed.

Silent Service Providers

The authors draw attention to the multiple ways in which trees and forests already contribute to healthy diets and sustainable food systems. Tree cover, for example, has been associated with greater dietary diversity and higher consumption of nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables. All nuts and more than half of all fruits eaten by humans grow on trees. Forests provide particularly important sources of wild foods – including fruits, vegetables and meat – for the 1.6 billion people around the world who live within 5 kilometers of them. Trees and forests also provide fodder for animals, supporting meat and milk production.

Trees and forests also provide wood fuels, which are an essential energy source for the cooking of around 2.4 billion people, enabling the consumption of nutrient-dense foods such as meat and pulses. They also provide income that can support food security and nutrition, for example by growing and selling tree crops like coffee and cocoa; employment in logging or ecotourism; and collection and sale of non-timber forest products. Agriculture benefits from the ecosystem services provided by trees and forests, such as pest and disease regulation, pollinator habitat, microclimate control, water and nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration , protection against soil erosion and nitrogen fixation.

In addition, trees and forests contribute to the stability and resilience of food systems, for example, through their tendency to survive extreme weather events better than annual crops; their role in supporting ‘lean season’ diets through the provision of wild foods; their ability to fill seasonal gaps in food production; and the ‘safety net’ they provide in terms of the supply of timber and non-timber products that can be sold to generate income.

“Whether directly consumed as food or sold for food purchases, forest and tree products are, in many cases, the only resources available to women and other marginalized groups in times of hardship and are therefore essential resources for reduce their vulnerabilities,” the authors state.

Areas of intervention

To maximize the multiple benefits of the broader and more explicit inclusion of trees and forests in food system transformation, the authors list four key areas for intervention. First, they recommend building on current knowledge by scaling up existing tree-based farming system solutions. Many of these solutions are not yet adopted at sufficient scales to have a decisive impact, but they could do so with the right support. This will in many cases require secure ownership of trees and land, “which is not yet the case for many arborists,” they write.

“To be effective, measures to increase tenure security must be combined with incentives for sustainable practices, including for on-farm tree maintenance.”

Drivers for the adoption of agroforestry measures were also found to be highly context-specific, highlighting the importance of working with and building on existing local knowledge in any type of agroforestry intervention.

Second, the authors recommend shifting agricultural investments from staple crops to more diverse and nutrient-dense foods.

Over the past half century, staple crops – such as wheat, corn and rice – have received billions of dollars of investment, which has improved their productivity and reduced their purchase prices compared to those of more nutritionally important foods such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. In order to increase their consumption, it will be essential to improve their productivity and reduce their costs, while using education and social marketing to raise awareness of the health and environmental benefits of better food choices.

Third, there is a need to redirect producer and consumer incentives towards nutrient-dense foods and more sustainable production practices. This will require policy changes at national and international levels. Currently, incentives such as direct price support and targeted fertilizer subsidies distort production in favor of staple crops.

“These incentives should be reduced or removed, and direct and indirect price interventions by governments, designed to take nutritional needs and environmental impacts more closely into account, should be implemented,” the authors write.

These subsidies could be redirected towards the production of nutrient-dense foods and the integration of trees on farms.

Fourth, food and nutrition objectives must be explicitly integrated into forest restoration and conservation practices and policies. The global forest restoration agenda has so far been largely dominated by carbon mitigation considerations. However, restoration initiatives that focus too narrowly on this goal – and neglect the needs of local people – often fail. Planting food trees, the authors write, could help achieve multiple goals at once, supporting local participation and sustainable livelihoods alongside carbon sequestration.

As the authors make clear, trees and forests already contribute positively to diets and ecosystems around the world and there is room to increase these contributions even further to address our multiple crises.

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