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Seeing The Forest Through The Trees: How Wild Foods May Contribute To Food Security

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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An estimated 870 million people are calorie deficient, but that figure doesn’t represent the entire number of people affected by food insecurity. An additional two billion people are also micronutrient deficient, often described as hidden hunger since it can occur even within diets containing adequate amounts of calories. Since wild foods such as fruits, roots, tubers, herbs and mushrooms are rich in micronutrients, they  may contribute to improving food security by addressing issues such as hidden hunger.

Bronwen Powell, a research fellow at the Centre for International Forestry Research, has highlighted the nutritional importance of wild foods. According to Powell, there is a need for food security to encompass both quality and quantity.  As she explained, “Getting enough micronutrients, without too much energy is important. Many developing countries are facing what is called a double burden of nutrition, where the rates of obesity and over-weight are quickly increasing, but the rates of micronutrient deficiency remain high. In some populations, over-weight people are more likely to be iron deficient than people who are not over-weight. It is essential that diets contain enough micronutrients without too many calories. The nutrient-density of most diets can be increased by increasing the intake fruits, vegetables and legumes and decreasing the amount of fat or refined sugar.”

Into The Wild: The Usambara Mountains in Tanzania are a source of nutrient rich foods.

In a study conducted in the East Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, Powell, Maundu, Kuhnlein, and Johns found that although wild foods obtained from the forest constituted less than 3% of food items consumed and contributed only 2% of total energy in the diet, they contributed large percentages of micronutrients–19% iron, 31% vitamin A (RAE) (31%), and 20% vitamin C. The inclusion of these wild foods can be particularly important since micronutrient deficiency has health implications. According to the World Health Organization, nearly two billion people suffer from iron deficiency, making it the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. In addition to impairing growth and cognitive development, iron deficiency can have more far reaching consequences by impacting work productivity and contributing to lost earnings. Following iron, vitamin A is the next most prevalent micronutrient deficiency worldwide, significantly impacting pregnant women and children.

Wild foods may also contribute to food security because they are relatively inexpensive and often function as safety nets during food insecure seasons such as drought or excessive rain. In order for wild foods to effectively contribute to food security, there are some issues to consider, including gender disparities within gathering and collection, improving access and promoting sustainability. For more on their potential benefits and challenges, have a listen to this podcast:

Image Credit: David Ashby

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. YangHui 11:44 am 02/12/2014

    At least based on anecdotal evidence from actual famines, wild foods aren’t really very effective as a safety net during food insecure time periods; while they function well as nutritional supplements to a staple diet, the low calories and slow rate of replenishment of many wild foods mean that they can be quickly exhausted if people attempt to use them to replace staple foods.

    Link to this

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