Issues Magazine

Forests and Food: Harvesting the Low-Hanging Fruit

By Frances Seymour

Forests have an important role in ensuring food security for hundreds of millions of rural households and the global community. The goods and services that forests contribute to human nutrition and agricultural sustainability deserve greater recognition in the food security debate.

More than a billion of the world’s poorest people depend on forests for some portion of their daily subsistence and livelihood. Foods gathered from the forest provide an important source of nutrition, while sale of forest products provides a source of cash income with which to buy food.

Forest ecosystems also provide a plethora of services that support agricultural food production at local, regional and global scales. Forests help to maintain rainfall and other weather patterns, enhance soil and water quality, control pests and provide crops and livestock with protection from the elements.

Climate change is among the greatest threats to food security in the future, and healthy forests can help buffer the impacts of increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events projected to accompany global warming.

Forests are a major carbon sink, soaking up atmospheric carbon and storing it in trees and in forest soils. Deforestation and degradation of forests releases this carbon into the atmosphere, further contributing to climate change.

Past attempts to secure food production have often come at the expense of forests. Indeed, agricultural expansion for food crops, pasture and tree crop plantations is the greatest cause of deforestation. Decisions about managing land for food, fibre and agrofuel production need to take into account the direct and indirect contributions of forests to food security.

Food from the Forest

Forests are a direct source of food for people all over the world. There are communities in South-East Asia almost entirely dependent on forest foods, living without any significant agriculture or trade. Forest foods consumed as staple foods on a regular basis include yams, potatoes, bananas, breadfruits and palms. Foods sourced from the oil palm are important to rural diets in West Africa, while starch from the sago palm is consumed on a regular basis by a million people across South–East Asia and the south-west Pacific.

In 62 countries, an estimated 20% of animal protein consumed by rural communities is obtained from terrestrial wildlife or fish. Bush meat – from wild animals hunted in the forest – is a valuable source of proteins and fats in Central Africa, where rural households obtain 30–80% of their total protein from hunting. Indigenous communities in East Kalimantan in Indonesia consume wild boar as a key part of their diet, but this species becomes less abundant after forests are logged. Forests, especially mangroves, also support the healthy aquatic ecosystems necessary to maintain fish stocks.

Communities often use forest foods to provide a variety of nutrients that may be deficient in staple grains such as rice or maize. Important supplementary forest foods include fruits, leaves, nuts and roots. Wild fruits are a particularly rich source of nutrients, often offering healthier sugars, higher protein levels and more vitamins than cultivated fruits. In the forested eastern region of Madagascar, studies have reported over 150 wild fruit species in use by local indigenous communities. Wild nuts are similarly valuable for nutrition, providing an important source of protein and fatty acids, including omega 3.

Forest foods provide an important safety net for rural communities during times of hardship by buffering against low crop yields or other seasonal changes in food availability. Invertebrates such as snails and caterpillars may be utilised as a dietary supplement in lean years. In East Kalimantan, marginalised communities rely regularly on sago starch from primary forests when crops fail due to drought. There is even some evidence that the relative absence of famines for the Papuan people in eastern Indonesia and Pacific islands may be attributed to the consumption of starch from sago.

Forests are also important to families and communities affected by HIV–AIDS. Bush meat can be a particularly important source of protein for AIDS orphans who often go to “play” in the forest and find food.

In addition to the provision of edible products, forests produce a range of goods that are used for various stages of food production. These products include wood fuel for cooking, leaves for wrapping food, baskets for storage, wooden ploughs, hunting implements, and mats for drying and storing food.

Forests and Livelihoods

Rural communities also rely on forests as a source of cash income to buy food to feed their families. Forest products can assist farm households to diversify their sources of income, protecting them against risk and enabling them to survive when crop yields are low. Marketable forest products include wood fuel, construction materials and craftwork as well as forest foods such as fruits, roots and bush meat.

The significance of forest-based income to rural households, and thus to their food security, can be great. For some households in Mozambique, cash from unprocessed forest products such as firewood, fruits, mushrooms, insects, honey and medicinal plants constitutes 30% of household income, while another 20% comes from the sale of processed forest products such as charcoal, tools and crafts.

In the late 1990s, extended drought and fires in the peat swamp forests of East Kalimantan caused fishing channels to become unnavigable and the fish, a key source of income for local communities, to become inaccessible. Communities instead hunted turtles to sell for meat and harvested tree bark to sell as an ingredient in mosquito coils, enabling them to continue to earn a living.

Forests as a source of income and financial safety net may be particularly important for women, as both employees and independent entrepreneurs. In South Africa, case studies have shown that women who have been widowed or left to care and provide for orphans of HIV–AIDS often turn to non-timber forest products and crafts that can be made at home, allowing the women to care for other family members while still earning an income.

Forest Services that Support Agriculture

Forests support food security as a source of not only goods for consumption and sale, but also vital ecosystem services that support sustainable food production.

Starting at the local level, there are significant benefits to agricultural productivity when forests and trees are maintained in and around farms. Forest cover provides a range of natural protection to crops and livestock by providing shade, wind breaks, mitigating floods, and aiding in the control of pests. In Niger, reforestation and afforestation efforts have been associated with a 10% increase in agricultural production.

Healthy forest ecosystems encourage birdlife, beneficial insects and spiders, as well as fungi, bacteria and viruses, which all consume or control pests, reducing the need to buy commercial pesticides. In Costa Rica, plantation owners and farmers have paid for the conservation of neighbouring forest for the natural pest control they provide.

Forests provide pollination services for agriculture – up to 35% of the world’s agricultural crops rely on pollinators for production. Pollination services are dependent on biodiversity and the presence of fauna to transfer pollen to where they are needed. Coffee production, for example, is negatively affected when grown further away from forested areas due to reduced pollination.

Forests support livestock production. Forests can protect livestock from extreme temperatures, reducing incidents of heat stress while also being a source of supplementary fodder and forage. The latter is particularly important in arid and semi-arid areas, where pastoralists provide their livestock with twigs, leaves, fruits and seed pods gathered from the understorey of forests.

The soil and water conservation needed for sustainable agriculture production is also supported by forests. Retaining or reviving native vegetation can assist in mitigating the depletion of soil fertility as trees can provide nutrients from leaf litter and also reduce the erosion of nutrient-rich topsoil. Maintenance of natural forest cover can help control erosion, a process that contributes to poor water quality, which is not only bad for crops but also significantly reduces the lifespan of irrigation equipment.

At the regional level, forests are often central to maintaining water security, a service particularly important to food production because agriculture is the highest water-consuming sector worldwide. Around the world, forested catchments are a vital source of freshwater for human use, supplying an estimated 75% of useable water globally. Recent studies show that converting forests to pastures in Brazil may adversely impact rainfall levels at the regional scale due to reduced evapotranspiration of trees, with significant implications for agricultural production.

Forests offer a naturally abundant source of genetic diversity for many of the world’s important agricultural crops. Genes from wild relatives can often be useful in breeding resistance to disease, and to other sources of stress such as drought. For example, the genes of the wild species of maize found in Mexico are being used to breed resistance to disease among domesticated varieties. In India, the Nokrek National Park is a 10,000 acre forest sanctuary primarily established to protect the genes of a wild variety of orange.

Forests, Climate Change and Food Security

Climate change is now appreciated as a major threat to food security. Forests have important roles to play, both in assisting poor communities and agricultural systems to adapt to climate change, and in mitigating the carbon emissions that drive global warming.

As climate change takes effect, rural communities will be increasingly vulnerable to crop failures caused by projected disruptions to familiar weather patterns, and by shifting distributions of diseases and pests. As a result, the “safety net” functions of forests previously described will take on increasing importance, especially for poor households.

At the same time, projected increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will make the maintenance of forest-based ecosystem services even more crucial to sustaining agricultural productivity. Natural forest vegetation can help mitigate the flooding and landslides that result from an increased incidence of high rainfall events, while healthy forests can help maintain water supplies – and will be more resistant to wildfires – during dry seasons that are longer and hotter.

Forest ecosystems are thus a valuable tool in climate change adaptation strategies because of the range of services they provide and the diversity they contain. Diverse ecosystems, such as those found in forests, often have a greater adaptive capacity – they are able to cope more successfully with change.

But forests are also a crucial part of the climate change mitigation agenda. Forests are one of the Earth’s most important carbon regulators, capturing carbon in the atmosphere and storing it in trees and soil. Forest ecosystems are estimated to currently store more than double the amount of carbon now in the atmosphere. When forests are cut down, they release this stored carbon as greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing significantly to climate change. Deforestation and forest degradation contributes about one-fifth of global carbon emissions.

Indeed, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) has emerged as a key area for negotiation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. REDD mechanisms currently being debated would channel financial resources from industrialised countries to developing countries to compensate them for keeping forests intact. REDD is being discussed as a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, which could also provide finance for rural poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation.

But many issues will need to be negotiated at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen this month before REDD becomes a reality. Of particular relevance to the role of forests in food security is the need to ensure that the rights of indigenous and local communities are protected: REDD should not result in the restriction of access to the forest-based sources of livelihood on which such communities depend.

Agriculture Expansion or Forest Conservation?

Despite the contributions that forests make to food security, past attempts to secure food supplies have often resulted in the destruction of forests. Expansion of agriculture is one of the main causes of deforestation. In the Amazon region, most forest loss is due to clearing for cattle ranching and soybean, while in South-East Asia, significant areas of forest have been converted to oil palm. Aquaculture development has also led to the conversion of mangrove forests to fish and shrimp ponds.

Agricultural development can also lead to indirect impacts on forests. For example, the rapid expansion of biofuel crops may be shifting food crop production to forest frontiers. In West Africa there are cases of prime agricultural lands being planted with jatropha (a plant that produces an oil-rich seed), with the result that small farmers are displaced to forested areas.

An extreme example of how attempts to secure food production have led to forest degradation is the so-called Ex-Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan. This program, implemented in the Soeharto era, aimed to harness one million hectares of peat swamp forest in the service of Indonesia’s self-sufficiency in rice production. The systematic deforestation and construction of canals to drain the peat swamp, however, resulted in a degraded, fire-prone ecosystem that was not suitable for crop production and that is producing globally significant greenhouse gas emissions.

Not all conversions of forests to agriculture have such disastrous outcomes. While most deforestation is caused by the development of industrial-scale agriculture, poor people all over the world have been made better off by opening forest land for farms. But the net impact of forest conversion on food security depends on factors such as the suitability of the land for the cropping or livestock system adopted, accessibility to markets and security of land tenure. Depending on who was benefiting from forest-based goods and services prior to conversion to agriculture, deforestation can also result in a shift of food security from one set of stakeholders to another.

Accordingly, clearing forests to make way for agriculture makes sense in some cases but not in others. Trade-offs between losses in forest-based goods and services and gains in productivity should be weighed explicitly, with due attention to distributional consequences.


Forest ecosystems offer countless goods and services that contribute to human nutrition, rural livelihoods, agricultural productivity and sustainability, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. Yet they remain significantly undervalued. As such, they provide “low-hanging fruit” to be marshalled in the service of food security.

Forests are an important source of food and income, particularly for poor households in rural areas. They serve as a safety net for rural families and communities in times of hardship. The ecosystem services that forests provide can help agriculture thrive by securing water supply, maintaining soil health and providing a range of natural protections. Such protections include minimising damage due to extreme weather events that are likely to be triggered by a changing climate.

Despite the importance of such services, attempts to secure and increase food production, particularly at the industrial scale, have led directly and indirectly to widespread deforestation. To achieve food security at household, society and global levels, a balance needs to be found between forest conservation and clearing land for agricultural food production. The REDD mechanism to be negotiated in Copenhagen this month would give value to the carbon storage services of forests, and provides one potential vehicle for achieving such balance.

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Susannah Raffe to the research and writing of this article.