Commericalization of nuts, mushrooms could hurt health of forest dwellers

Quirks of the market mean forest communities trade wild foods for little more than processed sugars.

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BONITO, Brazil (3 August, 2012)_The commercialization of nuts, mushrooms, vegetables, and other food products from forests could have a downside — hurting health as rural communities shift from diets rich in fibre and micro-nutrients to processed foods, a nutrition expert says.

Bronwen Powell, a post-doctoral Fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), pointed to global rises in obesity and related health issues such diabetes and heart disease, linked to increasing market integration and reliance on purchased foods.

There are ways to counter this, however, she said, urging policymakers to consider providing “appropriate and timely education” about nutrition at the same time as programmes designed to generate incomes.

Non-timber forest products, or NTFPs, have significant value to forest dwellers: they often provide the only means of access to the cash economy. A recent CIFOR study found that forests provide one fifth of rural incomes.

But money generated by the sale of these foods — which can provide a significant portion of micro-nutrients consumed as well as acting as safety nets in times of shortages or crisis — is often used to buy processed foods high in calories, fat and refined sugar and low in micro-nutrients.

Such dietary changes have adverse effects on health. And there’s plenty of reason to worry, Powell said, pointing to the statistics.

Continued use of forest and wild foods, especially those of plant origin, could help prevent further increases in obesity and nutrition-related diseases.

Recent analyses have found that there are over one billion people  who are overweight in the world today and 146 million people with diabetes in developing countries alone. There has also been sharp rises in cardio-vascular diseases. Even in some rural Indigenous populations (such as the Surui of Brazil), the majority of adults are now over weight.

Powell noted a number of studies showing that shifts from subsistence to commercial agriculture that led to lower quality diets and nutrition. For example in India, participation in a milk cooperative showed a decreased consumption of milk because, says Carol Colfer, a Principal Scientist and anthropologist at CIFOR “it became easier to market the milk and get money – so they stopped drinking it”.

A paper in a recent special issue of the International Forestry Review suggested that market integration in the form of a PES (payment for environmental services) scheme in Mexico, had led to lower dietary diversity and lower quality of local people’s diets.

Powell noted that one of the best ways to avoid obesity and micronutrient malnutrition is to try to find diets rich in micronutrients but without excess calories, fat and refined sugar. In the East Usambara Mountains in Tanzania for example, Powell’s PhD research found that while wild foods contribute only two percent of calories and fat intake, they account for almost a third of vitamin A and vitamin C consumed, as well as almost a quarter of iron and calcium.

“Continued use of forest and wild foods, especially those of plant origin, could help prevent further increases in obesity and nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes in developing countries, while at the same time providing important vitamins and minerals,” she said.

This research was supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and conducted in collaboration with the CIFOR-ICRAF Landscape Mosaics Project, primarily funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.   

Edited by Robin McDowell and Michelle Kovacevic

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets