Forest products make a major contribution to household food and nutrition security in the Congo Basin, says 'Nutrients and bioactive compounds content of Baillonella toxisperma, Trichoscypha abut and Pentaclethra macrophylla from Cameroon' paper published as part of the Bioversity International-led ‘Beyond Timber’ research initiative. However, to date, wild nuts, fruits and leaves are overlooked by governments in the policy guidelines on nutrition, issued by the governments of Cameroon, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to ‘Beyond Timber’ nutrition specialists, forest foods and their products should be promoted as important components of peoples’ subsistence food needs, diversifying diets and generating income.
Forest foods - enriching and diversifying
Food products from wild forest trees complement agricultural crops in several important ways that enhance nutrition and food security, notably providing important macro and micronutrients otherwise lacking from family diets of rural people in these countries. For example, 200 g of moabi fruit (Baillonella toxisperma) or nuts of the bean tree (Pentaclethra macrophylla) tree could supply 100% of the daily requirement of iron and zinc for a 1-3 year old child.*
“In order to increase the nutritional quality and diversity of peoples’ diets and decrease levels of malnutrition affecting forest dependent communities of Congo Basin countries, crops that can be found on farm should be enriched with the consumption of food from forests,” said Robert Fungo a ‘Beyond Timber’ Nutrition Consultant from Bioversity International and PhD student of Applied Human Nutrition, at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.
Despite this potential, researchers found that most communities in the forest areas suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition. This reflects, to a large degree, their choice to sell many of these products rather than consuming them, the lack of complementary protein sources (for example meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) and their low awareness levels regarding forest foods’ nutritious capabilities.
Knowledge and attitude shapes peoples' consumption of forest foods
‘Beyond Timber’ nutrition specialists found that the forest dwellers of the Congo Basin did not appreciate the potential of forest tree foods to address malnutrition in children. About 70% of the individuals interviewed in these communities did not know that these forest foods could improve the health of their children. “My colleagues and I noticed that peoples’ perceptions towards forest foods reflect cultural attitudes, market potential of these foods, and whether they are tastier to conventional foods,” said Judith Ngondi Laure, a Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, and ‘Beyond Timber’ Nutrition Consultant from Bioversity International.
However, those in most need turn to forest products more often, researchers discovered. The poorest households, which suffered the effects of chronic illness or even death related to malnutrition relied more on forest resources for food and medicine. Fruits of the moabi tree (Baillonella toxisperma) and the nuts of the bean tree (Pentaclethra macrophylla) - nutritious forest foods, with high proportions of bioactive ingredients, micronutrients and vitamins, become highly coveted for, when there is a young ill child or a pregnant or breastfeeding woman in a household.
“An environment rich in wild foods does not automatically correlate with knowledge, a positive attitude and full use of forest foods to complement the diets of forest dependent communities. Also, food security does not directly translate into nutrition security, as even diets that provide enough calories do not provide a balance of needed nutrients. In order to change the negative attitudes and perceptions towards forest foods among the communities of the Congo Basin, it’s important to raise awareness of the value of nutrient rich forest foods,” said Judith Ngondi Laure.
Furthermore, “given the importance of forest foods, it is imperative that the forestry sector is included in the formulation and implementation of policies for food security and nutrition, poverty alleviation and rural development,” stressed Robert Fungo. “Judging from what we’ve seen on the ground in the Congo Basin, governments should encourage community ownership of policy guidelines, by engaging vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people, local communities, women, youth and the disadvantaged men, in the development of tenure, governance, use and management of forests.”
Since 2011, Bioversity International has been leading ‘Reconciling the Needs of the Logging Industry with those of Forest-Dependent People’ ('Beyond Timber' for short), a research initiative carried out in Gabon, Cameroon and Congo DRC, in partnership with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and national institutes in each of the countries.
Photo: Children of forest community in Eastern Cameroon with one child holding fruits of Irvingia gabonensis. Credit: Bioversity International/R.Fungo