Dr. Anna Herforth, Joining Forces with Conservation through Forestry

After Frances Seymour’s keynote talk yesterday afternoon, Friday started with an introductory address by Dr. Anna Herforth on nutrition and joining forces with conservation through forestry.

In her talk, Dr. Herforth raised the question of what food security is. According the FAO (World Food Summit 1996) “Food security exists when all people, at all time, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life.” While being pretty comprehensive, this definition leaves out the physical access to food. Convenient access to food is often a concern in remote areas. Furthermore, food needs to be nutritious besides providing calories. Dr. Herforth used the example that many of us take power bars and extra vitamins with us when traveling to other countries because we calculate with a temporary lack of food security. Diets are the link between food security and nutrition. One of the best ways of thinking of human well-being is through nutrition.

The talk also gives attention to the consequences of food shortages in early childhood. Children that are malnourished face the risk of being stunted, which means being shorter in height than is expected for their age. Malnutrition is particularly severe in the “window of opportunity” between – 9 months and 24 months of age. Intervening at this early age and improving the situation of mothers is considered one of the most most-effective ways to alleviate poverty. While nutrition does not appear directly in many statistics for child deaths, at least 35% of children’s deaths are caused by malnutrition through interaction with increased susceptibility to diseases and illnesses. This makes malnutrition the single most important factor of child deaths. Other detrimental effects of malnutrition concern individual and national productivity (e.g. GDP), well-being, and schooling rates, among others. The regions of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are of particular nutritional concern.

Dr. Herforth linked these problems to agriculture and asks how one can improve nutrition from agriculture.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s poor are farmers, there are 870 million hungry, and 2 billion people suffer from the  “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiency. Why don’t agricultural investments suffice to improve the situation of these marginalized people? Dr. Herforth states that calorie production and economic growth are not sufficient to solve the complex issues of food security. A positive relationship exists only at low levels of calories, which means where there is severe hunger. However, calorie production does not automatically lead to improved nutrition. If the starchy roots and cereals produced in Africa were distributed evenly, there would be more than enough calories in Africa. This, however, leaves out the quality of food and essential food elements. There is a shortage of pulses, fruits, and vegetables being grown to provide adequate nutrition for the current population. Concerning this point, Dr. Herforth mentioned that people can meet their protein requirements through pulses and grains without the need for animal protein.

In a world where the first Millennium Development Goal,to halve poverty and hunger by 2015, is not close to be met, we have also moved from malnutrition to obesity within a single generation in many countries. Dr. Herforth mentioned the “McDonaldization” of the world to describe this trend.

Another important aspect of food security addressed in the talk is that in the past 100 years over 90% of crop varieties have become lost from fields and 690 livestock breeds have become extinct. This has profound nutritional consequences. Today 15 crops and 8 animals provide the vast majority of our dietary basis. Dr. Herforth asserted that diversified diets that are also sustainable to produce are a step into the right direction. A marketing strategy based on the high nutritional quality of diverse traditional and local foods can increase demand for these foods and help to support the agricultural systems that produce them.

The UN Zero Hunger Challenge, designed to follow the Millenium Development Goals, calls for everyone to have access to adequate food throughout the year, zero loss or waste of food, and for all food systems to be sustainable, among other goals. How can we meet these goals? Dr. Herforth outlined the  key principles for policy makers and practitioners. These include: incorporate explicit nutrition objectives, measure impact through measuring and evaluation, assess the context, target the vulnerable (i.e. work with women and the marginalized), empower women (women’s income leads very directly to improve the nutritional situation of a household), incorporate nutrition education, and diversify production, among others.

Bridging the gap from food security to conservation, Dr. Herforth asked how we can come up with indicators so that conservation projects take nutrition into account. The most commonly used indicator to measure food security is calorie production. As we have seen, this is not sufficient and only accounts for a very small part of food security. We therefore need to set certain research priorities that include nutrition and conservation objectives and demonstrate their interconnectedness. An example is the fresh water that intact ecosystems can provide, which enables households to have access to clean water for drinking and washing. Functional ecosystems can also help to regulate the risk of infectious disease, thereby improving human health.  Furthermore, fertile soils ensure the provision with micronutrients. These linkages show the need for forestry-relevant models to combine nutrition and conservation. Attempts to do so are agroforests, integrated forest-agricultural landscapes, mixed cropping, structurally and functionally divers gardens, and tree plantings.

The issues raised in Dr. Herforth’s talk emphasize the need to convey the links between forests, ecosystem services, and nutrition to society in order to change the perception of a competition between food production and forest conservation.  Forests actually contribute to food security and provide many basic services necessary for healthy food production for free. We need to bring together nutrition and conservation agendas in order to influence policy. This is most promising through a people-centered approach, as Dr. Herforth stated in a closing remark.

This blog will end with the number one take home message of the introductory address: Never use calorie availability as synonymous with nutrition!