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How forests improve children’s diets

A first-of-its-kind global study supported by the Luc Hoffmann Institute shows that children in 27 developing countries have better nutrition when they live near forests. 

The results turn on its head the common assumption that improving nutrition in poorer countries requires clearing forests for more farmland — suggesting instead that forest conservation is a powerful tool to improve the nutrition of children in developing nations.

“The data show that forests aren’t just correlated with improvements in people’s diets,” says Ranaivo Rasolofoson, a scientist at the University of Vermont and Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow alumnus who led the new study. “We show that forests cause these improvements.”

The results were published on 15 August in the journal Science Advances.

More than two billion people in the developing world suffer from a lack of micronutrients — like vitamin A, sodium, iron and calcium. The result for children can be brain damage, stunted growth and even death.

In response, food and farming programmes have begun to consider how to do more than just increase production of staple crops, like rice and corn, to fight malnutrition. There is a growing global awareness that the fight against hunger requires getting people a larger range of nutrients needed to thrive.

The new study, led by a team at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Environment, examined data on children’s diets from 43,000 households across four continents. They found that being close to forests caused children to have at least 25% greater diversity in their diets compared to those living at a greater distance from forests.

“This is a powerful, actionable result,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of UVM’s Gund Institute and senior author on the paper. 

Overall, the study reveals a global signal showing that forests can improve nutrition through numerous pathways. These include providing a range of foods gathered in forests, benefits from wild pollinators that live in forests, income from forests products to buy food, and more productive use of mothers’ time — all of which can promote greater dietary diversity.

“We discovered that the positive effect of forests is greater for poor communities,” says Rasolofoson, a post-doctoral researcher at UVM who grew up in Madagascar. “But communities need at least some access to roads, markets and education in order to get the most benefit from their forests.”

The team built their study and models from data gathered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) between 2000 and 2013, of children under the age of five. The massive database enables researchers to study global links between health and the environment. Forest conservation and children’s health have not often been seen as closely aligned issues. 

“Our study shows that conservation and health can go hand in hand,” says Brendan Fisher, a professor in UVM’s Environmental Programme in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and a co-author on the new research. 

The proven benefits of forest conservation include supporting the livelihoods of local communities, helping to slow climate change and protecting wildlife. Now the new study adds strong evidence that forests promote the health of children through improved nutrition. 

“Economic development and forest conservation are typically thought of as trade-offs — that leaders have to prioritise one or the other. This study helps to show that’s just not always, or even usually, true. More often than we think, it’s a false choice,” says Taylor Ricketts. 

“This study is a wake-up call that people who work on forest conservation and those who work on improving children’s health should be working together and coordinating what they do,” says Brendan Fisher, a Fellow at UVM’s Gund Institute. “We are now seeing a lot more examples of how an integrated approach to some of the world’s most pressing problems pays double dividends.” 

See more on the study here, and read about the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s Watersheds and human health project here.

Image: Rainforest on Fiji by Global Warming images / WWF-Canon

Luc Hoffmann InstituteHow forests improve children’s diets