By Nicole Graham, Humanitas Global
Within the last decade’s prevalent destruction of rainforests and forests, academics and activists have highlighted the resulting losses impact on our resilience to poverty, nutrition and food security, poor health outcomes, and climate change. Deforestation leads to a removal of carbon storage, degradation of clean water, and fragmentation of the remaining forests, risking the survival of millions of different plant and animal species.
Less frequently discussed is the importance of forest foods to millions of diets. Forests are estimated to cover about 30 percent of the world’s land area, providing many rural communities nutrient-rich foods that act as a staple in their diets. With the current population plagued by malnutrition and hunger expecting to be joined by an additional 2 billion people by 2050, well-managed forests offer economic opportunities and a source of nutritious food currently and for the future.
Recently a collection of scholars published the results of a cross-sectional study that examined the role of forest foods in dietary intake and food security for forest-dependent households in eastern and southern Cameroon, an area rampant with food insecurity. The authors found that 98 percent of participants regularly consume forest foods providing energy and significant amounts of micronutrients. While the sample population was not food secure (based on the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale), forest foods lessened the severity of food insecurity and yielded ample amounts of micronutrients. The data suggests that households who consume greater quantities of forest foods are less food insecure, with similar implications for forest communities throughout Cameroon.
In South Africa, a similar report determined that a large portion of the population utilizes forest foods to sustain their livelihoods and alleviate poverty. Like other African countries, South African food security is limited by a high unemployment rate, a dry climate, and the constant threat of HIV/AIDS. Benefitting from the naturally abundant food sources is imperative to sustenance.
While forest foods are not intended to serve as a complete diet, they supplement the nutritional intake of both humans and livestock living in a rural setting. Each part of a tree can serve as a year-round supply of food. Particularly in times of drought or scarcity, the fibers, leaves, stems, seeds and stems of trees aid survival in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, Pterocarpus sp., Myrianthus arboreus, and Ceiba pentandra leaves bloom immediately following the country’s “hungry period”, right at the end of the dry season, providing a vital source of food.
Leaves and stems, the most widely-consumed part of trees, can be used to bolster stews, soups and relishes by adding flavor to bland regional staples such as maize and rice. They can additionally be dried, powdered, fermented, or made into a paste as a full meat substitute. Fat- and protein-rich seeds and nuts derived from trees serve as an additional source of nutrition and energy. Cashews, for instance, are easy to collect and roast and deliver a large serving of fat, protein and iron. The iron content of dried seeds like the African locust bean is comparable to, or even higher than, standard chicken meat. Roots are high in calories, offering high-energy and protein-rich content.
Forests also provide vital medicines. Eucalyptus , for example, serves as a decongestant when oil from the leaves is rubbed on the chest and vapor from the leaves is inhaled. Some of today’s most influential medicines were discovered from trees, and scientists expect many more to be hiding within forests. Such cornerstone medicines include antibiotics like penicillin, cephalosporin, doxycycline, erythromycin, pain relievers, muscle relaxants, oral contraceptives, anticoagulants, cancer drugs such as Taxol, blood pressure medications like lisonopril, digoxin for heart failure, and local anesthetics. Quinine, considered the discovery of the seventeenth century, is an anti-malarial drug first found in the bark of the cinchona tree. Aspirin, with the main ingredient of salicylic acid from the willow tree, was used for centuries before being formally adopted as a drug.
Moringa oleifera, known to many as the “miracle tree”, has been used for medicinal purposes for nearly 4,000 years. Moringa, native to south Asia but now found in most tropical countries, grows quickly and can be harvested year-round. Its small, round leaves are packed with nutrition, containing calcium, protein, beta carotene, vitamin C and potassium. The leaves have been known to reduce inflammation and support healthy cholesterol levels. Moringa seeds kill bacteria in water, cleaning the water better than many conventional synthetic materials.
Forests are directly addressed within the 2030 development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, Goal 15 calls for sustainably managed forests, a stronger fight again desertification, a halt and reverse to land degradation, and a stop to biodiversity loss. With forests serving as such a key form of sustenance to large populations in rural areas, these reforestation and afforestation methods are critical to protecting these nutritious and invaluable food sources. Within the goal’s targets, the UN demands that by 2020 there are global measures in place to “integrate ecosystems and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts”, recognizing the role of forests in sustainable development and ensuring no one is left behind.