"The data show that forests aren't just correlated with improvements in people's diets," says Ranaivo Rasolofoson, leading researcher on the study, and a scientist at the University of Vermont. "We show that forests cause these improvements."
The study, focused on developing countries, showed that 2 billion people from these areas suffered from malnutrition, however those in close proximity to a forest had at least 25 per cent greater variety in their diet. The data, obtained from from 43000 families across 4 continents, holds significant weight in the fight against world hunger and deforestation; a huge statement, but one that the scientists are willing to back.
"This is a powerful, actionable result," says Taylor Ricketts, director of University’s Gund Institute and senior author on the paper. "It's comparable to the impacts of some nutrition-focused agricultural programs."
As a generally accepted school of thought, solutions to mass hunger and malnutrition have all involved plans to increase farming and farm land. Those solutions do make sense; increased farming equals increased variety and quantity of food, not to mention economic booms for local economy. However these new results throw an exciting spanner in the works, providing a possible sustainable solution to nutrition problems faced by billions worldwide whilst simultaneously conserving the planet’s lungs.
"We discovered that the positive effect of forests is greater for poor communities," says Rasolofoson. "But communities need at least some access to roads, markets, and education in order to get the most benefit from their forests."
In addition to an increased diversity in diet, the study suggests that there is a direct link between forest living and a reduction in vitamin A and iron deficiencies, which can lead to brain damage and stunted growth in children.
A nutritional study of this size hasn’t been undertaken before, with researchers conducting a meta-data analysis of household nutrition in the Caribbean, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Nepal, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines.
The beneficial links between the forest and the health of children could provide a clear demonstration that conservation and human health go hand in hand.
"This study is a wake-up call that people who work on forest conservation and those that work on improving children's health should be working together and coordinating what they do," added another co-author and professor from the University, Brendan Fisher. "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."