Nutrient-rich forest foods could play an important role in efforts to provide healthy diets for people around the world if they are identified in national nutrition strategies and made more readily accessible, according to new scientific research.
Bounty from the forest, including wild birds, animals ranging from rodents to elephants, leaves, stems, roots, fruit, mushrooms and nuts could help ensure food security for people who are currently malnourished - a number that continues to increase despite international efforts, said Bronwen Powell, a scientist at the Center for International Research (CIFOR), on World Health Day.
Most policymakers have focused on the role of energy-rich staple agricultural crops like corn and rice in fighting food insecurity, but this approach fails to address the fact that there are now more than twice as many people who lack micronutrients than the estimated number of people who are hungry.
Globally, about 870 million people do not have enough to eat, and more than two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiency, according to United Nations (UN) food agencies.
Climate change, increasing urbanization and the high cost of food should also be addressed, Powell said.
"While there are very few communities in the world that currently rely on forest foods to provide a complete diet, forest and wild food can help maintain household nutrition during the lean season, complementing the seasonality of staple crops," she said.
"These foods rarely provide a large percentage of the caloric intake, but they are very important for intake of micronutrients such as vitamin A, iron and calcium."
Among other things, a balanced diet can help fight high blood pressure - the focus of World Health Day 2013. The condition affects one in three adults worldwide and causes around half of all deaths from stroke and heart disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
"We want to shift the policy focus to providing more nutrients, rather than calories and that's where forest foods come in," she said.
Already 1.6 billion people rely on forests, which cover more than 30 percent of the world's land surface, to eke out a livelihood, according to 2010 data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The upcoming FAO International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome will explore the important role forests play in the lives of rural people and the global economy.
Such dietary sources contribute to food security as well, said Powell, pointing to a recent global study done by CIFOR. It found that forest-related income contributed about one-fifth of the total income of rural households across 24 countries - money that, if used wisely, could then be used to buy nutritious foods.
Wild meat is the main source of animal protein in many tropical forests, supplying levels of such important micro-nutrients as iron, which are less available in plant foods, Powell said, adding that a recent study in Madagascar showed that without access to bush meat 30 percent more children would suffer from iron deficiency.
"Forest foods can't be a panacea for global issues related to food security and nutrition, but in some specific geographic contexts they can play a significant role," said Barbara Vinceti, a scientist at Bioversity International, adding that underused, locally available micronutrient-rich foods may be more affordable and potentially more acceptable than other options.
"There's a growing interest in using food from indigenous or traditional trees and plants in meeting the high nutrient needs of infants and children, whose diet is based predominantly on cereals and legumes," she said, citing a fermented condiment made from the iron-rich seeds of the soumbala (Parkia biglobosa) in West Africa used as a low-cost meat substitute by families as an example.
Further research into the nutritional composition of forest foods compared with other foods is needed, Powell said, adding that more knowledge is needed to ensure sustainability and protect against over-harvesting.
Governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), schools, hospitals and health centres can help too, by promoting diets that include forest products in a responsible and well-managed way.
"Establishing policy platforms cross-linking nutrition with such sectors as environment, health, development, agriculture and conservation would ensure better promotion of forest foods into national nutrition programs," Vinceti said.
Several factors may be responsible for neglect and declining use of indigenous foods - including forest foods - depending on the context, she said.
"They include cultural perception, physical shortage of the product as a consequence of resource depletion, reduced time to gather wild foods due to changes in the distribution of a household's supply of labour, increasing pressure on women's time, loss of knowledge about forest foods and few opportunities to commercialize production," Vinceti said.
This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the global GEF/UNEP/FAO project Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition.