Symposium Features USAID Research Partnerships on Forests and Watersheds to Solve Complex Challenges to Food Security, Nutrition and Health

Symposium Features USAID Research Partnerships on Forests and Watersheds to Solve Complex Challenges to Food Security, Nutrition and Health
A symposium held at the Ronald Reagan Building on October 4 highlighted research that demonstrates linkages between the status of watersheds and forests and health and nutrition outcomes.

On Wednesday, October 4, 2017, USAID E3’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity (FAB) and the Biodiversity Results Integrated and Development Gains Enhanced (BRIDGE) project hosted a symposium in Washington, DC entitled “Evidence-based Solutions to Complex Problems.” The symposium showcased FAB’s biodiversity conservation research partners, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for the Environment, as well as implementing partner TetraTech on USAID’s Ecosystem Improved for Sustainable Fisheries (ECOFISH) project. A symposium held at the Ronald Reagan Building highlighted research that demonstrates linkages between the status of watersheds and forests and health and nutrition outcomes. More than 70 USAID staff and stakeholders attended either in person or remotely through AidConnect. The symposium, facilitated by Diane Russell of the FAB Office, allocated time between each presentation for the audience to engage the panelists in a discussion on the research in context of multidisciplinary development interventions.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Harry Bader, acting executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, kicked off the symposium by sharing both why he is a strong proponent of research as well as the use of big data to tackle some of the complex problems in development. He reasoned that research may demonstrate “what really matters is not what we expect matters” and that science validates how integration of multiple disciplines is needed to solve complex problems. “We’re not going to solve these problems from one perspective or one discipline. It’s going to take science. It’s going to take innovation and technology. It’s going to take political theory and social theory. It’s going to take economics. It’s going to take leaders in art and philosophy and faith to manufacture the solutions that are going to help.”

Following Harry Bader, Dr. Amy Ickowitz, senior scientist with CIFOR, and Dr. Bronwen Powell, assistant professor of geography and African studies at Penn State University, presented the preliminary results of their research on the relationship between forest cover and diet quality. Working in five African countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zambia), Ickowitz and Powell interviewed mothers and children about their diets. The results showed, according to Ickowitz that “forests make relatively small direct quantitative contributions, but those contributions were very key in scarce food groups.” Additionally, the agriculture systems in forested areas were much more diverse, leading Ickowitz to hypothesize that diverse agricultural systems are more common in forested areas and/or that ecosystem services provided by forests make the surrounding agricultural systems more productive. Powell further investigated the importance of forests to diet, explaining how landscapes determine food choice and impact nutrition; she explained, “small changes in access can change people’s decisions about what they eat. If the forest is 10 or 15 km away, that shapes peoples’ decisions about going to the forest [to] gather wild fruits” versus opting for something more accessible but less nutritious.

Dr. Terry Sunderland, principal scientist at CIFOR, discussed the policy implications for CIFOR’s evidence-based research and exciting opportunities to get forests, food security and nutrition onto the global food security agenda and policy arena. Two years ago, the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations established a global expert panel to study forests and food, which generated report recommendations that encouraged U.N. member states to integrate forests and trees into international food security strategies. “This recommendation is a testament to the value of evidence generated by the science, leading to a nice seamless policy process,” said Sunderland. “These policy recommendations fit very well with USAID’s own integration policy, helping to break down silos and [to] use an evidence-based approach.” Sunderland also shared CIFOR’s recent work on a report “Sustainable Forestry for Food Security and Nutrition” for the annual congress of the Committee on World Food Security (CSF) on October 11, 2017.

After Dr. Sunderland’s presentation, Dr. Robert Nasi, deputy director general-research with CIFOR, shared research conducted with Dr. John Fa, professor at Manchester Metropolitan University/CIFOR, on wild meat (commonly referred to as bushmeat) and fish, the sustainability of these food sources and the impact on nutrition. Bushmeat provides the poorest communities with the necessary fat and protein required to survive and Nasi queried the consequences to food security as wild meat resources become depleted. Nasi then proposed strategies to reduce the unsustainable demand for bushmeat, including developing alternative sources of protein and improved management of the resource.

Building on the discussion of wild food sources, Dr. Gina Green, senior technical advisor at Tetra Tech-ARD who has worked on USAID’s ECOFISH project, addressed the importance of wild-caught fisheries to nutrition and livelihoods. Green argued that it is important to maintain wild fisheries due to many livelihood benefits along the value chain (such as income and employment generation), in addition to the direct benefits to food security. Based on experience supporting the USAID’s efforts in the Philippines, Green described the benefits of an ecosystem approach to fisheries recovery with interventions such as the establishment of marine protected areas, public-private partnerships and the use of innovative technologies. Ultimately, Green pointed to the solution for fisheries recovery by striking a “guided balance between ecological and human well-being, which in the Philippines resulted in a 24 percent increase in fish biomass and a 12 percent increase in employment.”

The final speaker, Dr. Brendan Fisher, fellow with the Gund Institute of Environment and associate professor at the University of Vermont, spoke about Gund’s research project that investigated what the mega database, or “big data” collected by USAID-funded Demographic and Health Surveys can reveal about links between ecological conditions and human health. The researchers focused on diarrheal diseases, which is the second leading cause of death in children under five according to the World Health Organization. While the data shows that many factors affects the rate of diarrheal disease (such as wealth and maternal education), Fisher observed that an increase in tree coverage upstream could definitively be linked to a reduction in diarrheal disease downstream, sometimes on par with interventions focused on improved access to sanitation, and especially in poorer rural communities. In conclusion, Fisher expressed that big data supports development when used to test assumptions or provide deeper analysis and that “investments in nature can be investments in public health.”

Jack Putz, distinguished professor of biology and forestry at the University of Florida, closed the symposium by sharing his observations on the morning’s events and by subsequently leading a question and answer session. Putz emphasized that research and big data analysis helps implementers find evidence-based solutions by understanding the details of different contexts and accepting that there are trade-offs between interventions. The symposium presentations left the attendees considering the robust scientific research that exists about how forests, watersheds and biodiversity are linked to food security, nutrition, and health, and how a growing evidence base is strengthening the case that forest and ecosystem management should be considered as development solutions. Continued research and analysis through USAID’s partnerships will enable practitioners to better understand and test their assumptions on these linkages and to continually improve human wellbeing.

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