Foraging, food security, and forest management

SP-01 Forest Foods, Medicines and Human Health

Ramps, ephemeral forest foods gathered in the spring in the southern Appalachian region.
Ramps, ephemeral forest foods gathered in the spring in the southern Appalachian region.

Delegates at IUFRO 2014 are excellent Often we just think that forests are trees. But, in fact, there’s a great complexity of plants, fungi and other organisms between the forest floor and the top of the tree canopy, many of them regularly used by humans for food, medicine or other purposes. It’s increasingly important to take these forest foods and medicines into account when coming up with forest management plans and accounting for ecosystem services.

Jim Chamberlain, in opening the session, noted that  in the current forest management paradigm, even though food and medicinal products from the forest are of the utmost concern for food security, health, and cultural reasons, they are very rarely taken into account in forest management plans and strategy. There is a real need for a vocal and visible constituency to ensure the sustainability of the plants, animals, fungi and other organisms that people across the world rely on for food, medicine, and often, their livelihoods.

“Though we regulate everything else coming out of forests, we do little to regulate forest foods,” said Chamberlain. “Globally these products have been given a wholesale value of $63 million, $5.8 million from North America alone, yet there’s still very little consideration of these plants in today’s forest management plans.”

This is troubling for the future of forest foods and for pharmaceuticals, as Kristina Wahala presented. Plant-originated compounds are incredibly important to the drug industry, with 60 percent of commercial drugs originating from plants or micro-organisms. Plant-derived drugs are valued worldwide at $22 billion annually. Big pharmaceutical companies continue to search the world for the lead components for new drugs just as tropical forests disappear and tropical biodiversity wanes.

Apart from the global-scale pharmaceutical market, understory plants are also valuable at the household level as a food source. Carsten Smith-Hall cited in his talk that at least one billion people worldwide consume wild foods, mostly plants, and that poorer households on average consume a significantly higher proportion of wild foods in their diets. However, wild foods are currently not accounted for in assessments of food security and income, making them a vulnerable resource in the face of land use changes.

Smith-Hall emphasized that wild foods matter to rural communities, that they’re unlikely to be easily replaced, and that wild foods should be explicitly integrated into food security approaches integrated across agricultural, food, health, forest, and conservation institutions.

Marla Emery switched gears in her presentation about foraging in American urban environments. Through surveys in major cities, she shows that people in the United States forage in parks, rights of way, cemeteries, vacant lots, and interstitial spaces. She found that people forage for a variety of reasons, many because they’re on a tight budget but others because they’re foodies or nature lovers. Emery also talked about food sovereignty, the idea of foraging as a way of maintaining traditions, cultures, spiritual observations, and even family cohesion.

Robert Nasi made a compelling presentation about bushmeat as a non-plant form of forest food, arguing that this nutrient-rich food is important to the health and economic well-being of the people who consume it. He pointed out that 60 percent of bushmeat consists of rodents, rabbits, and small monkeys, and only two percent of endangered species. He suggested managing the most common sources sustainably and reducing need as the most viable approaches. Like the other researchers, he emphasized the need for a good monitoring system.

Again, while trees are a valuable component of forests, it is crucial to also recognize the importance of understory plants, fungi, and animals when making management decisions. Chamberlain and Emery both alluded to the next phase, moving from wild harvest of forest foods and medicines to forest farming.

Written by: Allison Chan

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