Calories are not the only factor in determining food security. Eating a variety of nutritious foods each day is necessary not only to achieve adequate caloric intake, but also to nourish the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. Unfortunately, much of the work that has been done to improve food security in the developing world has focused on caloric intake, to the exclusion of good nutrition. New FAO studies have proven what many already knew: that wild foods gathered from local, diverse ecosystems, such as forests, are an excellent antidote to malnutrition in poor populations.
At least 900 million people in the world suffer from hunger, while at least twice that number experiences nutrient deficiencies or chronic malnutrition. Malnutrition affects large numbers of people in both developed and developing countries. At least 13 million children in the US are at risk of becoming malnourished. Malnutrition can have serious health consequences, ranging from stunted growth to behavioral and learning challenges.
Global agriculture currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone in the world. The obstacles to ending world hunger, including financial systems, economic policies, war and social conflicts, and environmental degradation, are complex and multifaceted. But we know that poverty is at the root of most hunger and malnutrition.
However, reliance on the international, industrial food system may not always be the best course of action for those living in poverty in rural areas. In undeveloped areas, wild foods like insects, nuts, and fruits occurring naturally in the environment can serve to dramatically reduce malnutrition. Wild foods require no external inputs and are not subject to market forces. Thus, for some, they are a more reliable and often more nutritious food source than food aid in the form of heavily processed wheat, corn, and oil.
Some of the newest research studies and policy decisions regarding food insecurity and malnutrition have shifted focus away from increasing food production, and toward improving nutrition. One finding that offers good news in the fight against malnutrition, specifically in developing countries, is the nutritional value and availability of wild foods.
Wild plant foods such as berries, nuts, roots, and fruits, as well as animal foods such as wild game and insects, provide crucial nutrients that stave off malnutrition. In 2011, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization noted that the world’s poorest populations often relied on these forest-derived, wild foods during times of food scarcity. Since an estimated 1.6 billion people already rely on forests for their livelihoods, it is logical to promote the use of forest resources in alleviating malnutrition.
While many may associate the concept of eating insects with poverty, the FAO urges that people broaden their diets to include insects when necessary. Insects can serve as a valuable source of protein, and have less of an environmental impact than conventionally raised livestock. Wild game is another important source of both calories and nutrition for many rural communities.
Fruits are also nutrient-rich wild foods. A 2011 study found that children who consumed wild fruits had more nutritious and diverse diets.
Making wild foods accessible to the urban poor, or to those who do not have direct access to them for other reasons, poses a challenge. Expanding access to wild foods would involve making them available in city markets, where they would likely be more affordable than many imported or processed foods. Additionally, people living in areas where wild foods are readily available need to be granted legal access to these sustainable bio-resources.
The consumption of wild foods, especially animals, often conflicts with conservation efforts. Policy developers must balance the food needs and customs of local communities with the conservation of natural resources. This involves integrating forestry management into food security strategies, increasing local control of forests, and granting the world’s poor access to life-sustaining wild foods.
Findings on the nutritional value of wild foods support scientific and cultural research, mainly being conducted in the developed world, showing that consuming natural, nutrient-dense food is key to improving health.
– Kat Henrichs
Photo: Galloway Wild Foods