Forests vital for global food security

CIFOR scientists explain why at the EAT Food Forum in Jakarta
Farmer Maria Anap inspects her rice crops in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Research has found that smallholder farmers working in complex landscapes with multiple uses have access to better nutrition than people in areas with monoculture crops. CIFOR Photo/Icaro Cooke Vieira

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Worldwide, global hunger is on the rise, with 815 million people going hungry every day, according to a recent UN report. With the world population projected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050, global agricultural productivity must increase by 1.75 percent annually to meet global food needs.

Forests, trees and agroforestry play important roles in food security and nutrition, though this is still not commonly reflected in national development and food security strategies. Natural forests, which support vital ecosystem services, biodiversity and the livelihoods of indigenous and other forest communities, will be crucial for achieving global food security.

On the sidelines of the recent EAT Asia-Pacific Food Forum in Jakarta, Indonesia, Forest News spoke to scientists Terry Sunderland and Amy Ickowitz from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) about the impact of forests on food security.

How was the role of forests in food security discussed at the EAT Forum?

Sunderland: Forests were not mentioned at any of the plenary sessions on the first day. But our side event, termed the “competency forum”, was opened by the Ambassador of Norway, Vegard Kaale. In his introduction, he acknowledged that agriculture and forestry were two sides of the same coin. It was really refreshing to hear the recognition of the importance of forests and agriculture, and how they interact.

Ambassador Kaale explained that Norway is interested in supporting sustainable development in Indonesia and, in particular, transforming the food system from one that focuses on land clearance for staple crops to one of diverse and sustainable diets. The interest is considerable, as such systems approaches can result in better outcomes for forests.

We need to change our global food system, make it more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, focus on nutrition and promote dietary diversity

Terry Sunderland, CIFOR scientist

The main message at the Forum is that we need people to work together. Agriculturalists need to speak to foresters, and foresters need to talk to nutritionists. Basically, everybody interested in a sustainable food system that doesn’t degrade the environment needs to speak to each other. Everything we’ve been doing at CIFOR on forests and food security for the last five to six years is encapsulated in this event, in terms of the take-home  message: We need to change our global food system, make it more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, focus on nutrition and promote dietary diversity.

How does the EAT Forum relate to your research?

Ickowitz: This Forum covers broader aspects of some of the issues that we look at, such as the impacts of land-use change on smallholder diets. It is bringing different aspects of the interconnection between the food system and the environment. In the “competence forum” that I attended, the discussion was mostly about the impact of oil palm on the environment, and the role of retailers and companies in making consumption more sustainable in Southeast Asia.

My current research looks at the impact of producing oil palm on smallholder diets. So this is a bit different. There isn’t much work being done yet on looking at the nutritional implications for smallholder farmers. So our team brings this in; it’s another piece of the puzzle.

What role do smallholder farmers play for food security?

Sunderland: We advocate that dietary diversity will not come from large farms with one crop. It will primarily come from multiple cropping systems of smallholder farmers. One of the talks in the Forum looked at the issue of farm diversity and nutrition – about the fact that more vitamins are generated by smallholder farmers across diverse landscapes. We recognize the importance of landscape mosaics, the smallholder farmers that are not operating big 10-, 20-hectare farms, but smaller one-, two-hectares within very complex landscapes, often with multiple land uses.

In Indonesia, you can’t just talk about forestry and agriculture – fisheries play an important and integral role. Inland and marine fisheries stocks are particularly important for diets and we need to better understand how that interplays with dietary and nutritional diversity. We also need to know what the future demands for fisheries are, and how this may play out in terms of broader food security.

Why do smallholder farmers need more attention and support?

Sunderland: Smallholder farmers that are cropping many, many diverse species in small areas need to be supported. Those people tend to be more resilient to both climatic and economic shocks. We are not necessarily advocating going back to old farming systems of farming, but supporting those that are already there.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that between 60 to 80% of food in the tropics is grown by smallholder farmers. These are the people who put food on our tables. We need to respect that smallholder farmers know what they’re doing. And that growing a diversity of crops in diverse landscapes buffers them against economic and environmental shocks. They are the ones who need the focus of development attention.

Ickowitz: And sometimes that will mean converting their land from the diverse systems Terry is mentioning to growing oil palm. Sometimes this is a result of government policy and land-use policies, or unclear tenure arrangements, but often it is farmers’ decisions to earn the higher incomes that they believe cash crops will bring.

I think that we need better education for farmers about healthy diets and, in many places, the superiority of traditional diets over ‘modern’ diets

Amy Ickowitz, CIFOR scientist

In the places where we work, the farmers don’t always get the full information. If they do, then that’s their choice. I think that we need better education, though, for farmers about healthy diets and, in many places, the superiority of traditional diets over ‘modern’ diets. Knowledge is part of it, but it is also valorizing people’s traditional food systems, acknowledging them and having the outside world show respect and appreciation for their traditional foods.

Sunderland: [CIFOR scientist] Linda Yuliani works in West Kalimantan, and she’s been looking at what drives the farmers to sell their land to oil palm versus those who don’t. She measured the impacts of farmers’ decisions and found that farmers who’ve gone for the short-term profit by converting their land to oil palm, or selling their land to oil palm concessionaires, usually regret their decision.

Because although in the short term they have access to cash, in the longer term they have ultimately lost access to land and access to resources, with very little else to do. It’s amazing how quickly you go through a big pile of money. People make their decision because they want to enter the modern world, and the shift from forest to agricultural plantations is seen as progress. That’s the general perception. But development doesn’t reach everybody, and there’s an equity issue in terms of the distribution of benefits.

What do you think about the high-level participation in the EAT Forum?

Ickowitz: I was not expecting the high-level participation from different ministries in Indonesia. And all women! This was fantastic. The Minister of Finance was inspiring and the Vice President was also making the connections. The fact that there is awareness at the highest levels of government of the interconnection between these issues is an essential first step. I think the EAT Forum coming here has actually raised awareness at various levels about issues of healthy diets and sustainability in Indonesia.

Will this event help realize solutions that you propose in your research?

Sunderland: It depends on what happens next. I see [Vice President] Jusuf Kalla’s speech covered in the media, on what food security in Indonesia should be like. That’s a great start. Getting politicians to recognize the limitations of our current food systems is also encouraging. Things will not change overnight, but the event in Jakarta is raising awareness. The outreach in social media is really impressive. People are listening — and people are talking.

For more information on this topic, please contact Terry Sunderland at or Amy Ickowitz at
This research was supported by UK aid from the UK government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets