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Products such as this cellulose nanofibril computer chip could herald an era of biodegradable electronics.
©Yei Hwan Jung

Next frontiers

A snapshot of what the future might hold for forest product data

The emerging bioeconomy

Wood-based products can replace those made from fossil fuels, making forests and trees even more significant contributors to the bioeconomy. Packaging, biofuels, construction materials and even microprocessors can now be made from wood.

To strengthen the role that forest products play in a circular bioeconomy, there is a need to improve the manufacturing (including eco-design), use, reuse and recycling of forest products, as well as the management of wastewood. The goal is to reduce the environmental impact of each product over its life cycle. As new products appear, and are made and traded in large quantities, more classification codes will be required.

Future-conscious policies, geared to achieving the SDGs and securing their legacy, must look to enable substitution of fossil-derived products with wood-based ones. Developing awareness and addressing knowledge and implementation gaps in the global forest product value chain are crucial in ensuring the sustainability of a forest-based bioeconomy. The FAO Forest Product Statistics unit, with its global dataset and advanced modelling, will continue to catalyse the decisions that drive sustainable forest management.

Finding data on non-wood forest products

There is far more to forests and the bioeconomy than wood. Forests are integral to agrifood systems; they are also natural pharmacies. Fruit, mushrooms, nuts, bamboo and cork, as well as wild meat and many freshwater fish species, are among thousands of non-wood forest products used by an estimated 5.7 billion people worldwide. This cornucopia is utilized in myriad ways, from edible foods to the creation of medicines, perfumes, dyes, crafts, clothing and shelter.

Yet inconsistencies in definitions and non-standard units of measure mean that quantifying the production and trade of these vital goods, especially at the international level, is a complex endeavour. The absence of a consensus on definitions makes it hard to assign classifications. One country may refer to all foods harvested from forests as “Indigenous foods”; another will label them “wild foods”. What cannot be standardized is more difficult to capture and compare quantitatively.

Still, information exists for many of these products, and efforts are under way to consolidate it into a global database. A review led by FAO has enabled a refinement of international classifications, culminating in the introduction of ten non-wood forest products (pine nuts, important genera of mushrooms, edible insects and more) into the harmonized system nomenclature of the WCO, and in the production of data profiles for ten highly traded products.

Collecting new data for wild forest foods

New estimation tools are required to enable countries to collect data on informally gathered non-wood products such as wild forest foods. In partnership with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR-ICRAF), FAO has been piloting methods for gauging the volume of wild foods gathered in forests by measuring the containers people use to collect these foods and scaling up to national estimates of how much food is carried out of forests and the impact of that food. In terms of nutritional importance, we estimated that in Zambia, for example, the amount of wild fruits consumed from forests would be enough, on average, to meet 25 percent of international recommendations on fruit intake.

In coming years, the FAO Forest Product Statistics unit is committed to identifying additional solutions for collecting such data, so as to capture and communicate the full value that forests provide to our societies.

Innovation in information systems

As the world’s repository for forest product data, FAO’s Forest Product Statistics unit continues to explore the latest innovations in data storage and visualization and to deliver the information that governments and researchers require. This involves automating processes wherever possible. The recent integration of forest product data into FAO’s cloud-based statistical working system has streamlined the validation process and enabled full functionality throughout the pandemic-induced lockdowns.

We are experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) to bring new life to old data. AI can harvest information from historical publications and create downloadable datasets, organized and ready to use.

Recent years have demonstrated the value of FAO’s data for answering new questions regarding the role of forest products in mitigating climate change and in providing economic and social benefits to communities. There are even more stories the data can tell. Evolving analyses linking the production and trade of forest products with trends in forest area, urbanization and agricultural production are illuminating opportunities for growth and investment.

And if the production of microprocessors that incorporate cellulose into their design becomes economically feasible, FAO will have come full circle: our work will be, quite literally, powered by wood.

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Orthographic illustration of the Grizzly Giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park, United States of America – reputedly the world’s most visited tree.
©Robert Van Pelt
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