Sustaining Agro-Forests

Sustaining Agro-Forests

Women gathering food in a forest

Last week, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization held its first International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in attempts to raise awareness of the contribution of forests to food security, economic development, and ecosystem services; an issue mostly overlooked by policymakers.

With edible plants, fruits, mushrooms, insects, and wild animals, forests are a substantial food source for more than a billion people. Ensuring forest conservation is vital in helping meet United Nation Millennium goals of reducing world hunger by 50 percent by 2015.

In addition to nutrition, forests play other significant roles in rural societies.

Forests create a means for women’s independence. Plants, seeds, and insects collected by women provide both food and income for their families. Currently, 90 percent of forest produce sellers are women. With the income, women purchase other staple foods, medicine, and pay for school fees, contributing to the overall health and well being of their family and the community. Likewise, forest animals also provide a source of nutrition and income, with men making up the majority of hunters.

Forests also benefit food security in indirect ways. They contribute to regional rains and water tables, providing an essential water source. Forests also work as a carbon sink, absorbing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to reduce climate change.

The U.N. asserts that strict regulations must be enforced in order to curb unsustainable management practices and corruption. Hunting is a prime example of area in need of regulation. In Africa today, bush meat provides 30-80 percent of protein intake for rural communities. Over hunting has left animal populations noticeably reduced and bushmeat trade is threatening many species with extinction. Regulations, as well as enforcement, must ensure agro-forest policies don’t exacerbate the issue.

Regulations must also protect against over harvesting of plants – as well as insects. Insects play vital roles in forest ecology and upsetting the balance of certain species can lead to forest health decline or potentially ecosystem collapse. Harvesting vast numbers of insects, a food source for wild animals, is a likely contributor to current animal population decline. While the U.N. is now promoting insect consumption to curb global hunger, the scientific community and policy makers must work together to create policy that will ensure sustainable insect hunting practices.

Lastly, the human population is projected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Africa’s population, which relies heavily upon forests, could triple in this century. Can forests be sustainably managed with such a drastically growing demand? Agro-forest practices are a crucial alternative to industrial agriculture, but strides must be made with strategic foresight to ensure that deforestation by logging isn’t simply replaced with deforestation by depletion.

Brighter Green and the Globel Forest Coalition have recently published a briefing paper to raise awareness of the negative impacts of rapidly expanding industrial livestock farming and large-scale cattle ranching on the world’s forests and biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of Murdani Usman for CIFOR.