India’s vast, rich forests could feed the world

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: May 17, 2015 08:39 IST

With the global population expected to touch 9 billion by 2050, food from forests in India and elsewhere have potential to address needs of nutrition and food security at a time when the limits of boosting agricultural production are becoming increasingly clear.

A new report produced by an international panel led by Bhaskar Vira, an expert based at the University of Cambridge, says that despite impressive productivity increases, there is growing evidence that conventional agricultural strategies fall short of eliminating global hunger.

These result in unbalanced diets that lack nutritional diversity, enhance exposure of the most vulnerable groups to volatile food prices, and fail to recognise the long-term ecological consequences of intensified agricultural systems.

India’s vast forst forests resources could help enhance its food security, since many fruits and other crops from Indian forests are yet to be recognised as food.

“India relies mostly on agriculture, but that is subject to vagaries of weather. Forests can complement the agriculture-based strategy. Most of the forest foods are not in commercial production systems, but can be vital with sustainable harvesting”, he told HT.

Vira added: “Forest foods often provide a safety net during periods of food shortages. In the study, we reveal impressive examples which show how forests and trees can complement agricultural production and contribute to the income of local people, especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world.”

The report, titled ‘Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition: A Global Assessment’, by the International Union of Forest Research Organisations, was recently released at a side event of the United Nations Forum on Forests in New York.

It says that there is considerable evidence that forests and tree-based systems provide better and more nutritionally-balanced diets; woodfuel for cooking; greater control over food consumption choices - particularly during lean seasons and periods of vulnerability (especially for marginalised groups); and can deliver a broad set of ecosystem services which enhance and support crop production.

Comprising several examples and figures from India – including ‘jhum’ cultivation in the north-east – the report says that benefits of forests and trees to nutrition include the fact that tree foods are often rich in vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients and are associated with more diverse diets.

Vira said: “We need to recognise the valuable contribution of forests to food in India and elsewhere. What keeps people hungry is often not the lack of food, but the lack of access to that food and control over its production. We need to recognize claims over food sovereignty which give local people greater control over their food.”

Noting recent initiatives of the Narendra Modi government on the Forest Rights Act, he added: “Improved tenure rights and stronger rights for women who are becoming more responsible for food production from agricultural and forest lands are key to ensure the success of sustainable poverty reduction efforts”.

But “the complex, overlapping and interconnecting processes that link tree products and services to food security and nutrition are currently not adequately represented in forestry, agriculture, food or nutrition-related strategies at global and national levels”, it says.

Yet their importance is often well known at more local scales by consumers, forest producers and farmers.

Vira said the key points from the report are particularly relevant in the context of the UN’s post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals which seek to establish a more holistic approach to poverty reduction, the contribution of forests to food security and nutrition, and the integration of food production across forests and landscapes.

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