Forests and food: Get your facts straight!

A nutritionist debunks some myths about forests, food security and nutrition.
More than just protein: Achieving food security requires solving three kinds of malnutrition. Bronwen Powell/CIFOR

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Forestry research is complicated. So is nutrition. When people from these two fields start talking, as they do more and more these days, sometimes misuse of terminology or out-of-date facts can get in the way of good communication.

The past three years has seen an intense increase in attention to food security and nutrition among the forestry and conservation communities, including an international conference hosted by FAO and a panel review led by IUFRO.

At the same time, the priorities, state of knowledge and key focal issues in the world of food security and nutrition have also evolved rapidly. Some key milestones have marked a growing awareness of the importance of agricultural and environmental factors in food security and nutrition.

In 2012, the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World included a focus on multiple forms of malnutrition for the first time. The report highlighted the growing awareness that on their own, traditional approaches to combating hunger and malnutrition are not enough.

And this understanding was cemented in the 2013 Lancet Maternal and Child Nutrition series, which thrust the growing commitment to nutrition-sensitive approaches to agriculture into mainstream nutrition thinking.

Right now the stage is set for exciting interdisciplinary research and productive policy discussion involving diverse ministries and stakeholders, such as the High Level Panel on Sustainable Forestry for Food Security and Nutrition.

But to have meaningful discussions, we need to speak the same language.

As someone with a PhD in Human Nutrition, working at CIFOR – the Center for International Forestry Research – has offered me many opportunities to discuss food security and nutrition with a wide range of researchers, policy makers and practitioners from conservation, forestry, and natural resource management.

And I’ve come to realize that misconceptions about food security and nutrition are all too common. This is understandable given the rapid change in food security and nutrition knowledge.

Here are the top three pitfalls I have encountered.

Assumption #1: Protein is the reason humans need animal source food

You find statements like this throughout articles on bushmeat. But while this “obsession with protein” was abandoned years ago in nutrition research, it persists in the research on forests and food security.

We now know that human protein requirements are actually not very high, and they can be easily met with plant-based protein. In fact, outside of conflict and famine situations, very few populations around the world are protein deficient!

That said, moderate amounts of animal source foods can improve nutrition, especially in populations with micronutrient deficiencies. Animal source foods are one of the only and best sources of iron, zinc and vitamin B12 – some of the most common deficiencies globally. And they’re easier for the body to absorb in animal foods than in plant foods.

So, starting a paper by stating that animal source foods are essential to prevent protein deficiency doesn’t invalidate bushmeat’s importance to food security and nutrition – but it may leave many nutritionists with one eyebrow raised.

Assumption #2: Increased income will improve diets and nutrition

This one seems logical. It is especially understandable given the heavy focus on the importance of forests for livelihoods and the valuation of forests, non-timber forest products, carbon and other ecosystem services over the past few decades.

We’ve spent a lot of time demonstrating that forests are important for local people’s livelihoods, but we haven’t stopped to ask if improved income will lead to greater well-being, including better health and nutrition.

The evidence is growing – but there has never been such a strong need for us all to get our facts and terminology right!

Bronwen Powell

It’s true that, at the country level and over the long term, wealthier people generally have better nutrition. But at the individual and community level, a transition away from subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering toward more cash-based economies does not necessarily lead to better diets – especially for rural, forest-dependent communities in developing countries.

The reason: families don’t necessarily spend the extra income on healthy foods. Or, there simply isn’t enough money to replace the wild or farmed foods that are no longer accessible because of changes in how people use their time or tenure over resources.

The diet and nutrition transition is a trend away from traditional diets toward one laden with processed foods, fat, salt and refined sugar – and the higher risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that comes with it.

In order to contribute to the global effort to improve food security and nutrition, the forestry and conservation community must aim not only to improve livelihoods for poor rural communities, but to do it in a way that leads to improved dietary quality and diversity.

Assumption #3: Malnutrition is primarily caused by a lack of calories (energy)

This is more of an over-simplification. It is seen commonly, for example, arguments about the trade-offs in land use for food production vs. conservation.

There are a few problems with this assumption. We now recognize three main forms of malnutrition in the world: undernutrition (in the form of hunger or inadequate energy intake), micronutrient deficiency, and overnutrition.

Fewer people suffer from hunger than micronutrient deficiency or overnutrition.

The vast majority of people with any form of malnutrition live in middle- and low-income countries. And many countries, communities and even people often face more than one of the forms of malnutrition at the same time (e.g. in some populations women who are overweight are more likely to be iron deficient).

Ignoring the latter two forms of malnutrition in arguments about the relationships between forests and food security and nutrition can seem out of date or even irrelevant.

A big problem is that the different ways of measuring undernutrition can be confusing. Technically, “undernutrition” is usually defined as intake (or absorption and utilization) of any essential nutrient that is inadequate to meet the individual’s requirements (which are often increased by infection and disease). Because individual requirement for a given nutrient varies depending on life stage, health and genetics they remain close to impossible to determine in a field setting.

Because of this, physical measures that are indicators of undernutrition have long been preferred by many. Stunting – a child’s height-to-age ratio, compared to a healthy population – can be rapidly assessed and has become one of the standard measures of “chronic undernutrition”.

We used to believe stunting was caused by inadequate long-term energy (calorie) and protein consumption. But research now shows that in most contexts stunting is most strongly linked to micronutrient deficiency and repeated infections.


If we want to effectively communicate with the food security and nutrition community, we must use their terminology specifically and correctly. For example, we lose a lot of traction with many nutritionists when we claim that improved diet quality will automatically equate to improved “nutrition”, without also addressing rates of infection.

Strong arguments can be made for the role of forests and tree-based agricultural systems in providing nutritionally important foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source foods (including fish and insects). The evidence is growing – but there has never been such a strong need for us all to get our facts and terminology right!

I encourage anyone interested in these relationships to take the time to read some of the recent publications and learn the terminology (or at the bare minimum, seek feedback from someone with expertise in food security and nutrition).

Here are some places to start:

For more information on this topic, please contact Bronwen Powell at
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