Trees as food


The importance of tree food

South African fruit farm © Michael Lambert

Foodstuffs from trees have always been an important part of people’s diets from early humans gathering fruits and nuts to the first cultivation of important varieties of fruit trees, such as Mango Mangifera indica, which has been grown in India for over 4,000 years.

Forests play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change and in alleviating hunger and improving nutrition. Even today many people in the developing world depend on food and fodder from forests to supplement their own and their livestock’s diets.

Tree food products complement agricultural crops in several important ways that improve nutrition and food security. In many areas, particularly in Africa, tree fruits and leaves provide important micronutrients that are otherwise lacking in diets. Additionally, with their deep roots they are likely to be more resilient to climatic change than annual crops.

Tree food products are also important in the economic growth and development of many countries, particularly in the tropics.

The rising local and global demand for horticultural produce creates opportunities for income generation through the cultivation of fruit, nut and vegetable-producing trees.

Trees are a critical component in the quest for food and nutritional security and are sometimes excellent sources of both macro- and micronutrients, including minerals and vitamins, therefore contributing to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition.

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The food trees provide

Reinette apple Malus domestica reinette © Ita McCobb

Trees for Fruit

This tree food is probably the best known and ranges from apples, oranges and bananas to mangos and avocados. These fruits are eaten worldwide and are good sources of vitamins A and C, which is often lacking in many people’s diets. Orange-fleshed fruits, contain high levels of vitamin A and are easily cultivated in tropical regions. Wild fruit species are also valuable.

Researchers have found that growing just six fruit tree species on farms in Machakos, Kenya could supply vitamin-rich fruits to farming families for the whole year.

“Fruit trees can provide year-round products for consumption and sale, if sets of species with different harvest times are cultivated on farms,” she added.

Trees for Food from Seeds and Nuts

Walnuts Juglans © Ita McCobb

Many trees produce edible nuts and seeds that provide nutritionally important fats and oils.

Trees for Food from Leaves and Stems

Leaves from wild and cultivated trees are widely consumed. They can be used fresh or dried and preserved powdered or fermented.

Trees for Food from Roots and Tubers

Roots and tubers provide carbohydrates and are often used during drought or famine as they survive low rainfall periods and are an important source of water.

Trees for Food for livestock

An adequate supply of livestock fodder is a crucial part of food production for millions of people. Farmers raising animals on arid and semi-arid land often rely on twigs, leaves, small branches, seedpods and fruit from trees and shrubs to keep their animals alive.

In some cases, trees are deliberately planted for their fodder and foliage is cut by hand for stall-feeding to animals. More commonly, livestock is allowed to browse on trees and shrubs growing naturally. Fodder from forest areas, whether browsed or harvested, helps sustain livestock production and ensure a year-round supply of milk and meat products.

Nectar from tree flowers

Bee on Dog rose Rosa canina © Ita McCobb

The nectar from flowers of trees such as orange, chestnut, acacia and eucalyptus is a source of food for bees – thereby continuing nature’s cycle and providing honey for mankind.

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Food from forests

Forest food is often particularly important for poorer groups within a community and it is these groups that are most likely to be affected by a decline in the availability of such foods when forest resources are reduced, degraded or becomes inaccessible to them.

Forest foods are nutritionally important and are traditionally used as a dietary supplement for these groups. They are often collected and stored for later use and can raise rural peoples’ nutritional intake by providing a supply of food throughout the year.

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Trees as emergency food supplies

Date palm Phoenix dactylifera © Jennifer Hope-Morley

Food from trees is often used locally to meet seasonal scarcity of other foods and at times when crops are not ready for harvest. During these “hunger periods” it is common to dig for roots and tubers and gather fruit and nuts from trees.

During periods of drought, it is the conventional, often imported, crops that have high water demands that wither and fail. Whereas, trees often survive and when stores of food run out their foodstuffs can provide an important source of nutrition.

Food from trees can also play a vital role in complementing crops when the main food supply is impaired by famine, volatile prices, armed conflict or other crises.

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Trees and their impact on ending global hunger

Transporting bananas in developing country © FAO Simon Maina

About 1 in 9 people globally still suffer from hunger, with the majority living in Africa and Asia. According to the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the world’s forests have great potential to improve those peoples’ nutrition and livelihoods.

“Large-scale crop production is highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which may occur more frequently under climate change. Science shows that tree-based farming can adapt far better to such calamities,” said Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO’s Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) initiative. “We know that forests already play a key role in mitigating the effects of climate change. This report makes it very clear that they also play a key role in alleviating hunger and improving nutrition.”

Although forests are not a cure-all for global hunger, the report emphasizes that they play a vital role in complementing crops produced on farms.

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References: Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN; World Agroforestry Centre; Biodiversity International; Global Tree Campaign; International Union of Forest Research Organizations.