Wild Foods, Hunger and Nutrition -harnessing knowledge for sustainable food security

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Geography


The number of hungry people in the world remains unacceptably high (IFPRI, 2017). Although the 2017 Global Health Index (GHI) report shows long-term progress, millions still experience chronic hunger and acute food crises. A further 2 billion people suffer 'hidden hunger', where food consumption does not meet recommended nutrient requirements (UN, 2014). This has negative implications on health, including child wasting and stunting and micro-nutrient deficiency diseases, which result in a vicious cycle of sustained poverty due to a reduction in ability to learn and work.

However, economic development alone does not necessarily equate to improved national nutritional and health outcomes (GHI report). India is a prime example, with rapid economic growth over two decades, yet it still ranks 100th out of 119 countries in the GHI. At a local level, processes associated with economic development can threaten largely indigenous diets. Among Mexican immigrants to the US, those with traditional diets have better health outcomes than the rest of the nation, while those with calorie-rich, nutrient-poor diets have some of the worst health outcomes (Neuhouser et al. 2004). Effective public policies are needed to support food security and positive health outcomes (DeWalt, 1994), and these need to combine scientific knowledge with traditional indigenous knowledge about dietary choices.

Recent work has highlighted the importance of addressing hunger in ways that respond to local contexts and needs (Isaacs et al. 2016). One particular focus is the use of 'wild foods' in achieving food security and nutritionally-diverse, nutrient-rich diets (Vira et al. 2015). Supporting the conservation of wild food use, as well as the underlying knowledge, has attracted attention as an effective and contextually appropriate response to malnutrition, while ensuring prudent use of natural resources (HLPE, 2017).

Significant efforts have been made to document traditional wild food knowledge, including widespread collation of food composition data (Brand Miller et al. 1993; Masson 1995), but data are scarce on the nutritional and epidemiological effects of such diets. This project will combine insights from political economy, human geography, epidemiology, and public health to address the role of wild foods in relation to food and nutrition security, and will address the following:

1. What are the patterns of current use and knowledge of wild food systems in specific locations; how have these changed over time; and how have specific interventions to address food and nutrition security engaged with local communities and contexts, especially in relation to the sustainable harvesting and gathering of wild foods?
2. What are the possibilities of alternative nutritional strategies and locally appropriate food systems, based on available resources (including geographical constraints, infrastructural/labour and knowledge/attitudinal constraints)?
3. What are the comparative short-term health outcomes (such as body composition, birth weight and pregnancy complications) between those consuming wild foods and those consuming modern foods in comparable communities?

This research will help assess the extent to which food security strategies might yield positive nutrition and health outcomes, while building on locally appropriate knowledge systems in relation to wild foods to inform effective interventions.


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