‘Forests are well and truly on the global food security agenda’

It's time for a forward-looking, holistic approach to diets and landscapes, a scientist tells us on World Food Day.
Understanding of how forests contribute to global food security is improving. Bronwen Powell/CIFOR

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The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted last month by the UN General Assembly, include goals on ending hunger, promoting good nutrition and health, and making agriculture sustainable. The important contribution of forests in achieving these goals is becoming increasingly evident—and increasingly discussed, as food, land-use and nutrition experts work together to find integrated solutions.

On World Food Day 2015, Terry Sunderland, a principal scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), tells Forests News why forests and food security go hand in hand, and why he is hopeful for the future.

Despite much progress, there are still 800 million people under-nourished. Ending hunger is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently adopted by the United Nations. What contribution do forests make to global food security today?

About a billion people rely to some extent on forests for their livelihoods in some way. This includes food, medicine, fuelwood, and other products, as well as direct income contributions. Wild-collected diets don’t supply a lot of calories but food security isn’t just about calories; wild foods provide diverse nutrients essential to health and wellbeing.

Often, the further away you move from forests the more narrow people’s diets can become. Research has shown that people living close to forests often have a more diverse diet than the average rural dweller. In particular, children living in and around forests tend to have healthier and more diverse diets. In a recent study of 21 countries conducted by CIFOR, we showed a clear correlation between child nutrition and proximity to forests and trees.

Forest ecosystems also provide critical life-support services that support agricultural production, such as pest control on neighboring farms, flood risk mitigation, buffers against drought, and pollination of nearby crops. Crop yields, for example, tend to be higher closer to forests and other wild vegetation.

Forests are clearly not going to solve the global food security problem alone but they definitely have a role to play. And this is being slowly recognized.

Do governments, NGOs and the private sector grasp the importance of forests to food security? Do you think they are getting the message?

I do. Forests are now well and truly on the global food security agenda. This has come about because CIFOR, among others, has worked hard to develop a compelling evidence base—particularly on the importance of forests in overall dietary diversity and the provision of invaluable ecosystem services, especially for agriculture.

The world has come a long way since the Green Revolution, with its focus on commodities and calories alone, to thinking about whole systems and managing multifunctional landscapes for multiple benefits.

Climate change seems set to make production harder in many parts of the world and could even reverse recent gains made in food security. What part can forests play in minimizing the food security risks of climate change?

Monoculture farming is extremely susceptible to the vagaries of climate and the market. Multiple-use landscapes and diverse production systems are much more resilient.

Where people simultaneously grow many different crops, and can draw on wild foods as a safety net in lean seasons, they’re much more likely to cope with climate change and economic shocks. If you’re a coffee grower and you’re hit by a pest, you can still feed your family and have some income if you’re growing a whole bunch of other things to rely on besides coffee.

Forests are not going to solve the global food security problem alone, but they definitely have a role to play.

Terry Sunderland

Biodiversity can also contribute to future crop breeding and resilience as well. For example, the “scuba rice” is a new, flood-tolerant, rice cultivar bred using a race found wild in India. Unlike a normal rice crop, scuba rice can stay submerged for months. So, it’s really important we maintain wild varieties of crops and agro-biodiversity.

You’ve worked with forestry issues for a long time now. What big steps forward have you seen? Are you hopeful for the future?

My sense is the future is actually looking a lot better than it used to.

Five years ago, there is no way we, as a forestry research organization, would have had a role to play in discussions on food security and nutrition—simply because we wouldn’t have been seen as having a role to play. Now, with a more robust evidence base in place, there’s a much better understanding of the need for a systems approach to food security and nutrition. And you have different global experts of real repute coming together as never before, in various forums.

The Global Landscapes Forum is a great example of progress. We have the private sector, policy makers, health specialists, nutritionists, agricultural folks—they are all coming to the table. Even a few years ago, those people wouldn’t have been in the same room together. Now, we’re writing strategy papers together. That disciplinary diversity is a major strength and conveys incredible credibility when talking to policymakers.

The old silos are slowly breaking down. The time is now right for a forward-looking, holistic approach to food, diets, and the sustainable management of multifunctional landscapes.

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at
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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets Restoration SDGs