Nutrition and landscapes

To celebrate World Food Day, CIFOR scientist Amy Ickowitz shares her views on why forests are important for nutrition.
A woman farming in Burkina Faso. Photo credit: CIFOR

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CIFOR: What kind of research are you carrying out on nutrition and landscapes?

Amy Ickowitz: Our research started by looking at the relationship between forests and diets. We linked a a very large demographic health data set with information on diets — with data on more than 90,000 children under five —from 21 African countries with data on tree cover.

We found that children who lived in communities where there was more dense tree cover had higher dietary diversity, which means that they ate from more food groups than children living in areas without forests. Dietary diversity is recognized by nutritionists as an important indicator of healthy diets. We also found that children ate more fruits and vegetables in forest-covered areas.

So we thought this was enough preliminary evidence that there is a relationship between forests and diets , but it was still unclear what was behind this relationship — is it related to agriculture practiced in forest areas? Is it from income from forest products that is used to buy more food? Is it from people directly collecting food from forests?

Our next step was to secure the support of DFID KNOWFOR. In Africa we looked at five countries with different types of forest : Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. And we collected data on the quantities of food and sources of food that were eaten by mothers and children in forested and not forested areas to compare the quality of their diets. The results from this research are not in yet.

CIFOR: Why are forests important for diets?

Ickowitz: Forests can provide direct provisions to communities; people can pick wild fruits, hunt wild meat — meat is one of the most important and limited food groups for poor people in developing countries. In Burkina Faso, people eat a lot of leaves from trees, and these are important sources of micronutrients.

Then there are the ecosystem services provided by forests – agriculture may be more productive in areas which are forested, or the types of agriculture that are practiced in forested areas such as shifting cultivation and agroforestry may be conducive to healthy diets since they usually produce a variety of foods rather than just one staple crop. They tend to intercrop staples with legumes and vegetables and maintain fruit trees in fallows. They also manage fallows for hunting small game. The diversity in their fields is reflected in the diversity in their diets.

CIFOR: What are some of the problems that deforestation can cause for nutrition security?

Ickowitz: If you are deforesting to produce more rice and corn, but you are sacrificing fruit trees and vegetables and hunting, you might be gaining in calories but the overall quality of your diet may go down.

Even if your income goes up and you can buy food in the market, people may buy less healthy food — food higher in sugar and fat, white rice versus red rice — and some of the healthy foods you had before might not be available in the market, or might be too expensive. It is perhaps easier to kill and smoke an animal yourself than to buy meat, particularly in areas with poor infrastructure.

Our working hypothesis is that traditional agriculture in forested areas tends to result in healthier diets than commercial plantation agriculture. If this is the case, then we think this is important for policy makers to take into account when they are thinking about land use policy.

Amy Ickowitz, CIFOR scientist

CIFOR: You are now moving your research focus to Indonesia. Why?

Ickowitz: Indonesia is undergoing a rapid transformation of traditional agriculture to oil palm and other cash crops. This reflects a growing economy, and it’s clear that diets have been changing very quickly.

Our working hypothesis is that traditional agriculture in forested areas tends to result in healthier diets than commercial plantation agriculture. If this is the case, then we think this is important for policy makers to take into account when they are thinking about land use policy.

If you frame it as that we need to sacrifice forests for food security, you might be improving food security for people in other countries or urban areas by giving them more access to staple foods, but for local people you might be sacrificing their nutritional security by taking away access to diverse nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, meat and fish.

Deforestation is occurring for the purposes of intensive agriculture so you need policy makers to think about the full picture.

You need to be aware of  what you are giving up, and come up with alternative policies – make sure that local people have a substitute for the lost access to nutritious foods. Thus we are not saying that there shouldn’t be intensive agriculture if it gives local people benefits, but that there also needs to be thought given to the potential costs in terms of nutritious foods that local people may be giving up and how they can replaced if Indonesia’s nutrition situation is not to worsen further.

For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Ickowitz at
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