Food for thought: The underutilized potential of tropical tree-sourced foods for 21st century sustainable food systems

Merel Jansen*, Manuel R. Guariguata, Jessica E. Raneri, Amy Ickowitz, Fidel Chiriboga-Arroyo, Julia Quaedvlieg, Chris J. Kettle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The global food system is causing large-scale environmental degradation and is a major contributor to climate change. Its low diversity and failure to produce enough fruits and vegetables is contributing to a global health crisis. The extraordinary diversity of tropical tree species is increasingly recognized to be vital to planetary health and especially important for supporting climate change mitigation. However, they are poorly integrated into food systems. Tropical tree diversity offers the potential for sustainable production of many foods, providing livelihood benefits and multiple ecosystem services including improved human nutrition. First, we present an overview of these environmental, nutritional and livelihood benefits and show that tree-sourced foods provide important contributions to critical fruit and micronutrient (vitamin A and C) intake in rural populations based on data from sites in seven countries. Then, we discuss several risks and limitations that must be taken into account when scaling-up tropical tree-based food production, including the importance of production system diversity and risks associated with supply to the global markets. We conclude by discussing several interventions addressing technical, financial, political and consumer behaviour barriers, with potential to increase the consumption and production of tropical tree-sourced foods, to catalyse a transition towards more sustainable global food systems. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1006-1020
Number of pages15
JournalPeople and Nature
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Gabriela Wiederkehr Guerra for obtaining species background information and categorizing the species in the used diet recall dataset, and Carl Lachat for providing additional diet intake data. We thank Jan Göpel and several anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on earlier versions on the manuscript. We acknowledge the Coop Research Program of the ETH Zurich World Food System Center and CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), M.R.G. and A.I. acknowledge the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and J.E.R. acknowledges Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) for funding support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors. People and Nature published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society


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