Forests and food security: What we know and need to know


Related stories

Hand irrigation of commercial vegetable gardens at the dry forest margins in Burkina Faso

BOGOR, Indonesia (20 April, 2011)_A few weeks ago, I met a senior diplomat from one of the countries where CIFOR conducts research. He did not have a background in environment or natural resources, so I expected to spend some time explaining the importance of forests to his country’s prosperity.

To the contrary, the diplomat opened the conversation by connecting the political changes underway in North Africa and the Middle East with high food prices, at least partly caused, he said, by the natural disasters induced by climate change in Russia and elsewhere. When he acknowledged the importance of forest-based emissions as a driver of climate change, the linkage between forests and food security was complete.

This diplomat was quick to link forests and food security in one of the most indirect and hard-to-prove causal pathways; most linkages between forests and food security are more direct and more easily grounded in empirical research.

We know, for example, that forests and trees make significant direct contributions to the nutrition of poor households. A 2008 review of the literature on bushmeat – conducted by CIFOR and the Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat – affirmed that rural communities in Central Africa obtained a critical portion of protein and fat in their diets through hunting wildlife from in and around forests. The five to six million tonnes of bushmeat eaten yearly in the Congo Basin is roughly equal to the total amount of beef produced annually in Brazil – without the accompanying need to clear huge swathes of forest for cattle. Globally, forested watersheds, wetlands and mangrove ecosystems support the freshwater and coastal fisheries on which many communities depend. And that is in addition to the many fruits, nuts, grubs, mushrooms, honey and other edibles produced by forests and trees.

Equally important, forests provide an essential source of cash income to purchase food, especially during poor harvests. Results from CIFOR’s Poverty and Environment Network project – which has recently published a database of income survey results from some 6000 households – confirms that families living in and around forests derive on average between one-fifth and one-fourth of their income from forest-based sources. Another CIFOR research initiative on informal timber production for Cameroon’s domestic market estimates that some 45,000 people earn a living from such production in that country alone. Income from these ‘hidden harvests’ is rarely captured in national statistical accounts.

But my sense is that the most under-appreciated – and perhaps most under-researched – linkages between forests and food security are the roles that forest-based ecosystem services play in underpinning sustainable agricultural production. Forests regulate hydrological services including the quantity, quality, and timing of water available for irrigation. Forest-based bats and bees pollinate crops. Forests mitigate impacts of climate change and extreme weather events at the landscape scale.

The nature and significance of many of these linkages remain contested; one of the most controversial studies ever published by CIFOR was the 2005 report in collaboration with FAO that questioned the linkage between forest cover and major floods.

Tantalising findings on the impact of native pollination services on the size, quality and/or stability of harvests for 70 percent of global crops suggest the potential significance of forests on agriculture at the farm level. Projections of the potentially devastating consequences of reduced rainfall on Brazil’s booming agricultural sector due to deforestation in the Amazon are sufficient to focus the attention of national policy makers with or without REDD+ revenues.

Reports produced by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative are only the most recent in a series of attempts to assign price tags to ecosystem services, including those provided by forests. I recall a discussion almost five years ago in the context of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in which a colleague at the World Bank expressed exasperation at the lack of impact that valuation studies had had up to that point on forest-related policies.

Reasonable people can disagree over the relative priority of further empirical valuation studies versus research on shaping institutions to govern payments for such services and allowing markets to determine prices.  And the potential of REDD+ payments to improve climate security, the focus of much current forestry research attention, is certainly relevant to this challenge. Faced with rising food prices, political instability and the impending need to feed an estimated 3 billion more people by 2050, we also urgently need to accelerate the complementary research agenda on the relationship between forests and food security.

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting