Shifting to a Bioeconomy

Realizing forests' full potential

Foraging and wild harvesting – like these wild blueberries in Alabama – is a key contribution of forests to transition our global food systems. Photo courtesy of Joshua Woroniecki on Unsplash.

Forests and trees have always been crucial to people’s food security, nutrition, and culinary cultural identity. With a steadily growing world population, one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century will be increasing food production while maintaining worldwide forest health and biodiversity.

“I have come to realize that we, forest management experts, don’t appreciate just how valuable and important our forests are to people around the world — and often times completely overlook the fact that billions of people rely on the forest for essential things such as food and medicine,” says USDA Forest Service scientist Jim Chamberlain. “Apart from the traditional focus on wood and timber products, there are so many truly vital commodities that are absent from forest management and policy.”

In a study published in the journal Forests, Chamberlain in conjunction with Dietrich Darr and Kathrin Meinhold from the Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, discusses the essential transition to a bioeconomy. In a bioeconomy, forests and trees provide support for the nutritional needs of our increasing human population, while conserving forest biodiversity.

To broaden the bioeconomy to include non-timber forest products (NTFPs) such as food and medicine, Chamberlain argues the most critical action that could help to spur this transition is simply “recognizing that these plants are natural resources and treating them like any other asset that we manage for — like timber, water, or endangered species.”

Forests and trees are major contributors to food systems around the globe. Many indigenous people have strong ties to forest plants and fungi for nutritional needs and cultural practices. “Billions of people around the world are reliant on the forest for their basic food security,” says Chamberlain.

Agroforestry systems that include fruit-producing trees can contribute to global nutrition and food security objectives. Photo courtesy of Michael & Diane Weidner on Unsplash.

To realize the forest’s potential for sustainable and continued human nutrition, Chamberlain and colleagues discuss the need to recognize the contributions of forests to food systems at local and global levels. It is critical to focus on forest plants and fungi as food in addition to forests and trees as provisioning units for the bioeconomy.

Only through transitioning to an economic model that integrates forests and trees to provide for nutritional security will we be able to “realign our forest production systems,” notes Chamberlain.

The study discusses the contributions of forests and trees to food systems in:

  • Agroforests
  • Managed forests
  • Orchards and plantations
  • Urban and peri-urban land
  • Wild harvesting and foraging from natural forests

No single forest system is more important than another. Chamberlain explains that in a functioning bioeconomy, we need to “focus on all of them.” Forests are “much more than natural stands of trees,” and all of the different production systems have the potential to contribute to food security and nutrition on a global scale.

In the U.S. alone, close to 2,500 square miles of urban land could be planted with fruit-bearing trees and contribute to production systems.

When looking at management plans for natural forest lands, decision makers may want to think past timber. Forested land can produce food and medicine, in addition to traditional products such as timber.

Why worry about realigning food systems for forests and trees? To date, the economic contributions and market potential for forest foods remain poorly understood in comparison to agricultural and timber-based products. As Chamberlain and colleagues discuss, integration of forest products into appropriate institutions, such as the acceptance of baobab tree fruit pulp as a safe novel food, would open European markets to the export of this African-grown product and increase visibility of the plant’s importance and management on the world stage.

“We can demonstrate the economic and sociocultural contribution of forest food and medicine,” says Chamberlain. Yet shifting to a food system that includes forests and trees may take decades.

“Our work is far from over,” says Chamberlain, “But we have already begun the transition.”

Read the full text of the article.

For more information, email Jim Chamberlain at

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