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How Forests Improve Kids' Diets

A first-of-its-kind global study 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--and, instead, suggest that forest conservation could be an important tool for aid agencies seeking to improve the nutrition of children.

"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 who led the new study. "We show that forests cause these improvements."

Ranaivo Rasolofoson, University of Vermont
Uvmforest Diet Study Ricky Martin Cifor 800X400 0

Children in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to micronutrient deficiencies. A new UVM-led study shows how protecting forests can help these children get the foods they need. Photo Credit: (Photo: Ricky Martin/CIFOR)

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

Global Realities

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 programs 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 kids who lived farther away from forests.

"This is a powerful, actionable result," says Taylor Ricketts, director of UVM's Gund Institute and senior author on the paper. "It's comparable to the impacts of some nutrition-focused agricultural programs."

Taylor Ricketts, University of Vermont

For example, the results of the new forest study are very similar to the results of an effort to introduce a fortified sweet potato in drought-prone areas of Mozambique and of a homestead food production program in Cambodia. In other words, protecting forests could be a central piece in integrated efforts to promote better nutrition.

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