Interview

‘Nutri-scapes’ a recipe for better nutrition

Scientists embrace benefits of trees in landscapes for livelihoods and nutrition
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Changing diets in Kapuas Hulu Ibu Rosalina cooking fish with Keluwih.
Changing diets in Kapuas Hulu Ibu Rosalina cooking fish with Keluwih in Kapuas Hulu, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. CIFOR / Icaro Cooke Vieira

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Global food systems focus on an ever-narrower range of calorie-rich but nutritionally limited crops, degrade ecosystems and endanger human health.

Between  2000 and 2010, commercial and subsistence agriculture combined made up 73 percent of tropical forest loss, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Such statistics seem to suggest that the global objectives of food security, tree and forest conservation are incompatible.

The need for a profound shift of the global food and agriculture system away from a focus on quantity of food toward providing healthy diets is increasingly recognized.

Forests, agroforestry systems and other poly-cultural landscapes – areas where many types of crops grow — provide a diversity of nutritious foods that support healthy diets, while also providing livelihood opportunities.

Tree-based landscapes are ideally placed to serve these multiple purposes and support nutrition as well as livelihoods of the people that live in them while not further undermining tree and forest conservation.

Supporting these goals, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry’s (ICRAF) new joint Nutri-scapes Transformative Partnership Platform (TPP) is working toward nutrition-centered landscapes that can simultaneously support food security, livelihoods and conserve biodiversity.

“Nutri-scapes intentionally looks at healthy diets from an entire landscape perspective,” said Nutri-scapes co-leaders Amy Ickowitz, Stepha McMullin and Kai Mausch in a joint statement.

“In the past, CIFOR focused mostly on ‘wild’ forest research while ICRAF focused mostly on cultivated trees and landscapes. Nutri-scapes brings together and further develops insights about how wild and cultivated landscapes work together and can be better integrated to provide healthy, sustainable diets while supporting the livelihoods of producers.”

Drawing on the fields of nutrition, forestry, agroforestry and economics, Nutri-scapes hopes to build recommendations for “mosaic landscapes” that combine standing trees, forests and farms; their recommendations would build biodiversity into community life.

One approach to mosaic landscapes is teaching farmers to cultivate native fruit trees on their farms which improve soil fertility, grow marketable produce and support a healthy diet.

This wide-ranging project crosses many national borders and targets a variety of landscapes across Africa, Asia and South America. Some of the countries currently included are Kenya, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while further projects are being developed to broaden this important research.

Ickowitz, a CIFOR senior scientist who leads the Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods team; Mausch, an ICRAF senior economist; and McMullin, an ICRAF scientist, discussed the new TPP.

Q: What’s new about Nutri-scapes research?

A: Nutri-scapes intentionally looks at healthy diets from an entire landscape perspective. In the past, CIFOR focused mostly on “wild” forest research while ICRAF focused mostly on cultivated trees and landscapes. Nutri-scapes brings together and further develops insights about how wild and cultivated landscapes work together and can be better integrated to provide healthy, sustainable diets.

Our research also has a special focus on indigenous and underutilized tree and forest foods that are often overlooked yet play an important role in many communities’ diets.

Additionally, Nutri-scape’s holistic landscape approach to nutrition research recognizes that many rural households are both consumers and producers of food products. Many rural diets are formed from a combination of homegrown, foraged and purchased foods. Accounting for these interactions can support livelihoods by facilitating paths for individuals to market their homegrown and foraged products.

Q: Why is nutrition research important right now (in a global context)?

A: Nutrition research is important more than ever due to the triple burden of malnutrition — the coexistence of overnutrition, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies — and associated diet-related diseases that have appeared across the world.

To address malnutrition, we need to understand how local and global food systems function and to discover how they can supply us with nutritious, sustainable foods.

In the past, these systems were shaped to deliver sufficient calories rather than a broad range of nutrients.  These systems need to change; instead of simply proving calories, they should supply us with a diversity of healthy foods. Tree and forest foods play a vital role in furnishing that diversity.

Furthermore, researching sustainable food production could help us find solutions to climate change. There is a need to look at nutrition and food production in a large-scale landscape context in order to explore these potential solutions.

Q: What is a “nutrition portfolio,” and why does it matter for your research? 

A: The Nutritious Food Portfolios are context-specific recommendations for producing and consuming a greater diversity of nutrient-rich foods to address seasonal harvest and micronutrient gaps in local diets.

To make these recommendations, the portfolios record information about a variety of indigenous and exotic tree foods, as well as other available crops such as fruits, vegetables, pulses — which are members of the legume family — and staples.

We co-develop portfolios with communities, taking into consideration the socio-ecological dynamics of food production including seasonal availability of crops, local food security and food consumption habits. Our work also considers community priorities; for example, how much of the food produced will be used for home consumption and how much will be sold for income.

The portfolios matter in our research because they ensure that agricultural and wild biodiversity are prioritized in our research as we seek to promote diverse and nutritious diets. They also highlight that it is possible to produce a healthy combination of foods even on small farms and under challenging environmental conditions.

Q: Where do you primarily conduct research for Nutri-scapes?

A: We work in different parts of Indonesia — particularly in Indigenous communities — across Africa and in parts of South Asia. Some of these countries include Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Uganda, so our work covers both humid and dry tropical countries. However, the scope of the work is global, and several recent Nutri-scapes proposals would expand the geographic coverage of this project even further.

Q: How do different landscapes change the way you do nutrition research (e.g. dense tropical forest versus African grassland)?

A: The way we do research does not change much, but the resources, and therefore our recommendations, change from place to place. Our methodologies are adapted to look at the types of foods that are commonly consumed and the types of foods that are missing from the diet in each specific area. Perhaps one way that our research differs by landscape is that in the humid, tropical countries where we work, hunting is not as criminalized as it is in drier areas. So, in tropical countries, we can work directly on issues of hunting, wild meat and sustainability. In countries where hunting is illegal or criminalized, it is more difficult to research how wild meat contributes to diets because people are understandably reticent to share information on this sensitive topic. We can still study wild meat, but we know that we are not capturing the full extent of this important activity in dry landscapes.

Q: Do you have a story from your research that highlights the importance of studying interactions between nutrition, landscapes and livelihoods?

A: Yes. While researching how oil palm plantations affect local diets in Indonesian Indigenous communities, we noted a phenomenon which has been happening all over the world over the last few decades — a “nutrition transition” from fiber-rich plant based foods to carbohydrate and energy-rich diets that are high in processed foods, animal products and sugars. In the Kapuas Hulu Regency in Indonesia’s province of West Kalimantan, for example, we can see some of these changes taking place almost in real-time. We see people farming next to the forests collecting foods from the wild and eating more fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and fish than their neighbors who were eating more sugary foods, commercial dairy products and eggs.

It’s fascinating to see how evolving livelihoods and incomes in farming communities change what people eat. In many ways, the nutrition transition mirrors what we have seen in the global north; that is, people with higher incomes do not always make good dietary choices, preferring instead the new access to processed foods.

There are many more stories, but in general, every landscape and community we work in is different. In every instance we need to understand the local landscapes and ways of living. We need to engage with these communities to develop recommendations that take into consideration socio-cultural factors that can determine improvements in their overall well-being.

Q: What would success look like for Nutri-scapes?  

A: In the narrow sense, CIFOR-ICRAF’s nutrition research would attract more national and international partners who share our vision to deliver more resilient and nutritionally responsive food systems. In the broader sense, our recommendations would help shift communities toward healthier diets, improved livelihoods, and sustainable landscapes that support climate change mitigation. Landscapes and nearby towns would be transformed to feature greater tree cover and biodiversity.

Through Nutri-scapes – we will be able to provide consolidated evidence on the contribution of forests to enhancing diets, livelihoods and biodiversity. We will also gain a greater understanding of the complex interactions between rural livelihoods and local food systems. Such evidence supports decision-making at the project, program and policy levels.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Ickowitz at a.ickowitz@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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