Forests and Food Security: Dr Madhura Swaminathan

FAO Forestry Report

There is an interesting new report on forests and food security from the High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security (HLPE 2017).

The report begins with a modification of the existing typology of forests. To the existing categories (as defined by the FAO Global Forest Resources Assessment) of primary forests, secondary forests and plantation forests, the Report adds two new categories. These are “wooded land not classified as agricultural land and with a canopy cover of 5 to 10 per cent,” and “trees outside forests.” The last category they recognise is a diverse one including orchards, “agroforestry systems and mosaic landscapes where forest patches are too small to be considered as forests for statistical purposes.” The usefulness of including the last two categories becomes clear when we turn to the contribution of forests to food security.

It is estimated that 1 to 1.7 billion people today rely in some way on forests and trees and can be termed forest-dependent. There are four main ways in which forests contribute to food security and nutrition. The first is “direct provision of food” both to humans and animals. In absolute terms, although the contribution of forest foods to global energy food supply is very small, these foods add significantly to the dietary quality and diversity of forest-dependent people. Secondly, forests are a major source of energy: around 2.4 billion people are estimated to depend on wood as their main source of energy for cooking. Thirdly, forests are an important source of income and employment, both in the formal and informal sectors. Fourthly, forests provide ecosystem services such as “water regulation, soil protection, nutrient circulation, pest control, and pollination,” which, in turn, have implications for the well-being of people and the environment.

Having noted the importance of forests for food security, the main concern raised by the Report in the context of rising demand for food, feed, wood and bioenergy, is that of a decrease in forest area. Over the last 25 years (1990 to 2015), area under primary and secondary forests fell while area under planted forests rose. The net effect was, however, a decline in forest cover, although the decline in the recent period has been slower than earlier on account of new plantings. An additional concern is the degradation of existing forests (based on partial canopy cover loss), which is much larger than the absolute decline in area under forests.

There are seven sets of recommendations, under the broad heads of knowledge and training, ecosystem management, livelihoods, multifunctional landscapes, resilience, tenure and use rights, and forest governance.

I shall elaborate on two of these recommendations.

The essence of the idea of a multifunctional landscape is that forests be integrated into a plan for sustainable production to enhance food security and nutrition. The Report terms this a “nutrition-sensitive landscape approach.” This is an application of the concept of “farming systems for nutrition” or FSN. As defined by M. S. Swaminathan and his colleagues, FSN “envisages the introduction of location-specific agricultural remedies for nutritional maladies by mainstreaming nutritional criteria in the selection of farming system components involving crops, animals and wherever feasible fish” (Nagarajan, Bhavani and Swaminathan 2014). The Report suggests managing landscapes (by biodiversity conservation, agroforestry systems, etc.) to meet the goal of sustainable nutrition security.

Another crucial recommendation is to “recognise and respect land and natural resource tenure and use rights over forests and trees,” so as to ensure that forest-dependent communities have “access to and use of forest resources for the realization of their right to adequate food.” In India, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was a landmark in respect of individual and community rights to forest resources. The implementation of this Act, however, is highly uneven across the country and needs serious attention.

High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security (HLPE )(2017), Sustainable Forestry for Food Security and Nutrition, A Report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome.

Nagarajan S., Bhavani, R. V. and Swaminathan, M. S. (2014), “Operationalizing the Concept of Farming System for Nutrition Through the Promotion of Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture,” Current Science, 107, no. 6, Sep. 25.

This article appeared on the blog page of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies