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Making room for wild foods in forest conservation

  • The first-ever FAO report on the importance of biodiversity for food and agriculture warns that the abundance of our food supply is diminishing — with worrisome consequences for global food security.
  • The report also looks at the decline in wild foods, an underreported but essential component of food security, especially for forest dependent communities.
  • While wild foods make up less than 1 percent of global caloric intake, they provide essential micronutrients to hundreds of millions of people.
  • Acknowledging the role that wild food plays for forest-dependent communities, and the right of access to those foods, could be an important contribution to the debate around forest conservation.

Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health published its version of a sustainable diet that could feed the nearly 10 billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050, with little or minimal harm to the planet.

One critical component was missing: wild foods.

Wild foods, or wild edible species, are, by definition, not cultivated or grown intentionally. Chanterelles harvested in France, trout fished from free-flowing rivers, wild leafy greens like Cleome gynandra collected from around the edges of agricultural fields in Zimbabwe, or Brazil nuts collected from the forest floor in the Amazon all fall under the broad definition of wild foods. Wild foods fall along a continuum of completely wild through to managed or even domesticated, and while harvesting wild biodiversity can have detrimental impacts on the environment, especially when it comes to animal species, wild edible species are essential for their contribution to the diets of hundreds of millions of people, often rural, indigenous, and forest-dependent communities.

“Wild biodiversity is an important source of food for many people, particularly in the poorer regions of the world,” Julie Bélanger, a technical officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) Secretariat of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, wrote in an e-mail to Mongabay. “[H]owever it is not possible to definitely map where in the world wild foods make the most important contributions to nutrition.”

But according to the FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture” report, published for the first time a month after the EAT-Lancet report, mapping those foods may be becoming even more critical. The FAO study estimates that a quarter of all wild food species are decreasing in abundance, which could negatively impact the one in seven people worldwide who consume wild foods in some form.

Chanterelles are one of the most popular wild edible mushrooms found in Europe, Asia and North America. Image courtesy of Joshua Morse.

Our shifting diet

In the last 100 years, the diversity of the human diet has plummeted. Of the almost 6,000 documented plant species used by humans, just three — rice, maize and wheat — make up 50 percent of global calorie intake from plants. Poor diet is now the world’s number one health risk.

A 2018 FAO report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” says one in three people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger”: micronutrient deficiencies caused in part by our dependency on just a handful of global crops. The problem is expected to grow. The same report says undernourishment has actually risen in the last few years, in large part due to conflict and climate change, affecting 821 million people.

“We are homogenizing our diet to few crops that aren’t resilient or good for us,” Chris Kettle a scientist at Bioversity International, an NGO that seeks to increase agricultural and tree biodiversity, told Mongabay in an interview. “When we diversify our diets, and reduce our dependence [on just a few main crops], we could really have much more sustainable landscapes that sustains much more diversity.”

A recent study showed that species richness in our diets — the amount of different kinds of species we eat — is linked to better dietary quality.  The authors conclude, “Nutrition-sensitive agricultural and ecosystem conservation interventions, specifically those related to diversification, clearly have an untapped potential to address global hunger and micronutrient deficiencies.”

But nutritional and conservation data on wild species is often missing.

“A lot of these [wild] foods are in the informal sector so hard to manage them and get data on them,” Sheila Wertz, team leader of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the FAO, told Mongabay in an interview. “They are often used traditionally and locally, sometimes only seasonally like in periods of drought. That’s part of the reason why there are very few large-scale studies on [wild foods].”

A Fisherman reviews his catch in Kiribati. According to the FAO, on some islands in Kiribati, the proportion of wild food in the diet can at times reach 100 percent. Image courtesy of Will Koh.

Wild food and trees

Transitioning to more sustainable food production is also a critical component of achieving the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The way we produce our food is the leading cause of deforestation and land-use change, and a major contributor to climate change.

A 2017 report by the FAO’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition, called on forestry decision-makers to “re-imagine forests, not just as spaces for conservation, protection or production … but also as key to the world’s food systems and diets.”

Most estimates suggest that anywhere from 1 billion to 1.7 billion people depend to varying degrees on forests and trees outside forests for their food security and nutrition. Although many wild foods are not obtained from the forest, almost all “forest foods” are wild, Wertz says.

Even though wild forest foods make up less than 1 percent of global caloric intake, they provide essential micronutrients to hundreds of millions of people. Studies have shown that for some communities, wild foods make up most or all of the vitamin A, vitamin C and iron consumed, showing their importance especially for micronutrient intake.

“What hasn’t been communicated so well is the huge micronutrient benefits of wild foods,” says Kettle. “Plants like Camu Camu (Myrciaria dubia) have 55-times the vitamin C content of an orange. They have a huge potential to be much better integrated into agroforestry or wild-harvested value chains.”

Forests and trees play a key role in many food systems. Directly, they provide people with nutritious foods, and indirectly they provide ecosystem services and income. While the impacts of deforestation and land-use change are often considered for their impact on ecosystems, climate change and economics, the wild foods in them, an important source of food for many rural households, is often neglected.

“The older generation of researchers was too focused on the economics of forests, which didn’t always play out,” says Terry Sunderland, a professor of forestry and conservation at the University of British Columbia. “We failed to convey the multiple-use management of forests. It’s about the whole system rather than a component of the system.”

Mopane worms (Gonimbrasia belina) are harvested in dry scrub forests throughout southern Africa. The FAO estimates that insects are regularly eaten by at least 2 billion people worldwide. Image courtesy of Nick McClure

Forests as food baskets

Recent studies have shown a correlation between dietary diversity — an important indicator of food security worldwide — and forests. One study, for example, found that children who live near forests have 25 percent higher dietary diversity than those living in less forested areas.

“All these recent studies point clearly to the fact that local people close to forests have better diets,” Sunderland says.

Experts are still uncertain as to whether this is from direct consumption of wild foods or from selling forest products. Sunderland say the research is still lacking. However, most agree that further studies looking into the link between forests and nutrition could help shift the conversation on forests and food security.

Increasing consumption of wild forest foods could also have benefits for forest conservation. Take the drought-resistant Maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum), for example. Belonging to one of the largest trees in Central America, it was once prized for its nutritional value for both animals and humans, and provided a valuable food in time of shortage, such as drought, after hurricanes, and during civil wars. Its culinary revival has helped the tree from going extinct, and the once wild-harvested nut is now being cultivated, with satellite evidence showing that communities that grow Maya nut have much lower rates of deforestation.

“Eating Maya nut comes with all the benefit of reforesting, of nutrition, of having market projects,” says Cecilia Sanchez-Garduño, national coordinator of Ramon Nativa in Mexico, whose organization is attempting to revive Maya nut through a series of projects. This includes the“healthy kids, healthy forests” project that incorporates Maya nut into children’s lunches. “But the stigmatization is a problem. Maya nut was a subsistence food for bad times. It’s associated with famine,” Sanchez-Garduño says.

Maya nuts (Brosimum alicastrum) were historically an important source of food for humans, especially during periods of drought throughout Mexico and Central America. Image by Alex Monro courtesy of Ramon Nativa.

Wild foods and protected areas

Wild foods, and specifically wild forest foods, also play into the conservation debate in other ways. The U.N.’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declares that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”

But wild foods, which the 2018 FAO food security report includes as a one of the parameters of food access, have historically been at odds with the development of protected areas. And studies have shown that protected areas can often have negative impacts on the nutrition and health of those groups that are excluded from them.

“We are not going to succeed if we just say we need to protect the forest and no one can access it,” Kettle says. “Maintaining people’s rights to use the forest is essential.”

This extends as well to the recent surfacing of abuses against indigenous people living near protected areas by WWF-funded park guards. Tribes like the Tharu in Nepal and Ba’ka in Cameroon, reportedly harassed and killed by park guards, historically depend on wild foods collected largely from forested areas, many of which they’ve now been restricted from accessing.

“Food access is one of the four main pillars of food security,” Sunderland says. “When people are being shut out of places where they usually access food, that goes against their right to food. It’s a human right abuse.”

Wild trout fished from a lake in North America. Image courtesy of Joshua Morse.


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