From Forest to Fork: Sustainable Food Systems and the Wild Meat Challenge
The phrase “from farm to fork” is often used to describe what are called “value chains” for food, where, for example, a chicken is moved from the farm where people raised it, to the marketplace, and then on to the forks of the people who eat it. But this doesn’t tell the whole story: in many countries around the world, people rely on wild foods, including wild meat, to meet their nutritional needs. Wild meat, sometimes known as “bushmeat,” refers to the meat of wild animals (excluding fish) hunted for human consumption. The wild meat value chain begins in the forest–and, to a lesser extent, other habitats rather than the farm. And it does not stop in the cooking pots of rural communities but rather continues to peri-urban and urban areas.
The current volume of wild meat demand, particularly in cities where the purchasing power is high, is unsustainable, and can generate deeply concerning unintended consequences with global impact:
- Rural malnutrition and food insecurity: The volume of demand for wild meat from hundreds of thousands of urban dwellers eating it adds up to an enormous drain on wildlife resources from forests. This can leave rural populations at a loss, as they do not have the luxury of more abundant food options that urban populations have.
- Emergence and transmission of new zoonotic diseases: More than 70 percent of new, emerging, and re-emerging infectious diseases originate from animals. In recent years, much attention has been paid to understanding and reducing the risks of zoonotic disease spillover in the wild animal trade, from both the human health and wildlife conservation perspectives.
- Biodiversity depletion: The 2019 global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services confirmed that overexploitation continues to be a major threat to biodiversity. Overexploitation includes deforestation, unsustainable fishing, and wildlife trade. While wild meat does not get the attention that iconic and high-value species such as elephants and rhinos have, wild meat hunting is also a threat and has long been observed as a key contributor to empty forest syndrome.
To better understand the consequences of the demand for wild meat throughout the value chain, USAID’s Wild Meat Collaborative Learning Group is investigating what the sustainable food systems model leaves out — and how the Agency can better address the urgent, interconnected objectives of ensuring rural nutrition and food security, preventing zoonotic disease spillover, and conserving biodiversity. One key need is for more comprehensive data collection and analysis on food and nutrition that includes the current role of wild animal source foods in diets and the contribution they make to food security.
Digging Into the Data: The Role of Wild Meat in Diets
Decades ago, conservation scientists called for greater attention to the impact of unsustainable demand for meat on wildlife populations. Though noted in key conservation publications, efforts to study the impacts of overhunting on rural communities and their nutritional needs are more recent. One empirical model of children in northeastern Madagascar showed that removing access to wild meat would increase the number of children suffering from anemia by 30 percent. A systematic review of linkages between wild meat and nutritional health noted that wild meat is an important source of micronutrients as well as fats and some macronutrients, though there are risks to human health from wild meat where food safety practices are not followed from source to plate. Recent work using 24-hour dietary recall of women and children under five in remote areas of the Congo Basin has identified that wild meat and fish play an important role in meeting nutritional needs, in both rainy and dry seasons. USAID’s support to the Center for International Forestry Research is contributing to this work as well as to the Wild Meat Database.
Greater attention to the role of wild meat in diets is needed to better assess not only its importance to rural poor communities, but also to identify appropriate interventions that support sustainable food systems. One exciting move in the right direction is that Feed the Future Zone of Influence Surveys now include questions about consumption of wild meat for multiple rounds of data collection. These questions recognize the important role that wild meat plays in diets and the dwindling availability of this essential natural resource, as well as out of recognition of the role that hunting, marketing and consumption of wild meat can play in the emergence and spread of new zoonotic diseases. Broadening such data collection to nationwide surveys beyond only Zones of Influence will allow for deeper understanding and more effective rural nutrition approaches that take into account the impacts of unsustainable demand for wildlife. When researchers and projects collect and use these data, communities and wildlife can both benefit.
USAID Wild Meat Collaborative Learning Group
The Wild Meat Collaborative Learning Group serves as a platform for cross-sectoral learning exchanges to support evidence-based decision-making for improved programming. The group includes Agency members from Washington and missions around the world interested in biodiversity conservation, food security, nutrition, health and livelihoods, with an aim to increase and improve programming related to wild meat issues.
- Consumer preferences and desires for wild meat;
- Consumer needs for wild meat;
- Regulation of the urban wild meat commodity chain; and
- Rural access to wild meat for subsistence consumption.
Reducing Consumer Needs for Wild Meat
The Wild Meat Learning Group’s theory of change recognizes that many vulnerable communities rely on wild meat for food and livelihoods — and that unsustainable demand for wild meat threatens the very communities that rely on it. Increasing availability of safe, nutritious, and desirable food alternatives can reduce reliance on wild meat for food security and nutrition. Additionally, promoting alternative economic enterprises for hunters, traders, and sellers can reduce reliance on the wild meat economy. Addressing the food and income drivers of wild meat trade will reduce the incentive for local communities to engage in illegal and unsustainable wildlife hunting.
Coming Soon! Wild Meat Webinars, Case Studies and Toolkit!
The USAID Wild Meat Learning Group is partnering with USAID’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Center for International Forestry Research to learn from, expand, and improve our collective wild meat-related programming. The resulting four-part webinar series will culminate in an in-person Learning Exchange in October 2023 in Central Africa. The kickoff was held on April 19, 2023, and provided an overview of our aims and the events in the series. Upcoming webinars will explore law enforcement and governance, sustainable wildlife management, and linkages between One Health and wild meat approaches.
Also at the October 2023 Wild Meat Learning Exchange, the learning group will roll out a Wild Meat Programming Toolkit produced in collaboration with missions and experts from inside and outside the Agency. The toolkit will share lessons learned from wild meat programming and the cross-sectoral approaches needed to succeed. It will also provide guidance and tools for conservation and other practitioners to design more effective programs, and to strengthen monitoring and evaluation methods for improved adaptive management and a better evidence base regarding the effectiveness of common strategic approaches.