This article was originally published on Mongabay and is republished with permission.

  • The new study, across 24 countries, shows a wide range in the variability of how communities use forests for food.
  • The nutrients provided by wild fruits, vegetables, game and fish are critical to the nutritional health of some communities and should play a role in decisions about land usage.
  • Land-use decisions should factor in the importance of forest foods to some communities, say the authors.
Until recently, scientists hadn’t systematically compared the levels to which different groups of people across the tropics depend on nearby forests for food.New research shows that, though forest usage varies widely between and even within countries, the nutrients provided by wild fruits, vegetables, game and fish are critical to the nutritional health of some communities and should play a role in decisions about land usage.“As far as we’re aware, this is the first of its kind,” said ecologist Dominic Rowland of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the University of London in a CIFOR blog post. “We tested the hypothesis that the consumption of forest foods can make important contributions to dietary quality in a wide range of sites across the tropics.”

The landscape approach, advocated by study author Dominic Rowland, calls for land use that incorporates several uses for communities, such as the fish farms and multi-crop agriculture pictured here in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by John C. Cannon

Rowland and his colleagues published their research in the journal Environmental Conservation in October 2016.

They knew that certain communities – often the poorest, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization – depend on the natural bounty found in forests.

“There are all kinds of foods that come from the forest, including anything from land snails to wild fruits and primates,” Rowland says. “We focused on nutritionally important food groups that are often lacking in the average diets in these countries.

“For these food groups, primarily it is bushmeat, fish and fruit for which the forest is relied upon, as well as vegetables,” he added.

This type of varied diet packs a bevy of important ‘micronutrients’– that is, vitamins, minerals and trace elements such as zinc. Even if people get enough calories from staples such as corn, wheat and rice, they’ll be more susceptible to disease without small amounts of these chemicals found in many forest foods, the authors report. That’s especially the case for children.

“Undernutrition in children under 5 years of age is the cause of 3.1 million deaths a year,” they write in the paper.

However, not all communities rely on forests to the same degree, they found.

A woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo heads to the forest to gather fruits and vegetables. Photo by John C. Cannon

Take, for example, the researchers’ findings at three different locations in Brazil. They found that people at one of the sites got more than 60 percent of their meat from the wild game and fish from the forest, but very few fruits and vegetables. By contrast, another community got nearly all of its produce from the forest, but almost no meat. A third group of people at a different site didn’t use the forest much at all: Less than 20 percent of their fruit, vegetables, meat and fish came from there.

The researchers uncovered the same variability in the investigations of 23 other countries, backing up the conclusions of an earlier CIFOR study in Indonesia on nutrition and forests. That suggests that local context molds humans’ reliance on forests, Rowland said.

“You can’t say that forest foods are universally important,” he said in the blog post. “But you also can’t say that forest foods don’t make much difference to diets.”

Rowland pointed out that removing those forests could have dire consequences on areas that draw heavily on the bounty of their local environment – especially those that the researchers categorized as “forest food dependent.”

“The scale and importance of wild food use must be taken into account when making landscape-scale land-use decisions,” he said. “Our findings suggest that deforestation and land-use change may have unforeseen consequences on the quality of local people’s diets.”

When loggers clear an area of trees or companies convert forests to plantations for a single crop such as oil palm, that can leave communities with fewer options to supplement their diet.

Revelations about the importance of standing forests to the health of some communities’ diets highlight an important concern for policy makers, he said. He advocates decisions that promote the many uses of forest on which many people depend – what scientists call the “landscape approach.”

“[Y]ou need to take into account the impact on local people’s diets because monoculture might not provide people with sources of nourishing food,” he said.

CITATIONS:

  • Ickowitz, A., Rowland, D., Powell, B., Salim, M. A., & Sunderland, T. (2016). Forests, trees, and micronutrient-rich food consumption in Indonesia. PLoS ONE, 11(5), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154139
  • Rowland, D., Ickowitz, A., Powell, B., Nasi, R., & Sunderland, T. (2016). Forest foods and healthy diets: quantifying the contributions. Environmental Conservation, (October), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0376892916000151

Banner image of piranha in Peru by Rhett A. Butler

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