PhD defence: Emilie Vansant

Emilie Vansant defends her thesis,

From Forest to Farm
Linking Trees in Landscapes to Dietary Quality in Rural Malawi

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Associate Professor Laura Vang Rasmussen, IGN

Assessment committee:
Senior scientist Frédéric Baudron, French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development, CIRAD – France
Associate professor Thilde Bech Bruun (chair), IGN

The global food system fails to provide healthy, affordable diets to the world’s poorest populations. Policies in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) promote agricultural intensification and expansion of staple grains at the expense of forests and trees, which are important and often-overlooked sources of micronutrient-rich foods. While there is emerging evidence supporting the links between forests and nutrition, few studies expand this scope to include trees outside of forests. This thesis uses a mixed-methods, case study approach to examine the effect of tree cover, and the productive functions of on-farm trees, on women’s micronutrient adequacy in Malawi. Due to high rates of deforestation, poverty, and malnutrition experienced by the rural population, Malawi was identified as an optimal case study country to investigate these linkages. The analysis draws from a novel, interdisciplinary dataset of socioeconomic, land-use and dietary data collected from 460 women in both dry and wet seasons. The results show that a) greater tree cover and b) food trees on farms are associated with higher vitamin A, iron, zinc, and folate adequacy levels. While households do not gain additional dietary benefits by using trees on farms for fuel and/or income, multi-purpose on-farm trees do not detract from dietary quality and have the potential to offer other livelihood benefits. By identifying associations between tree cover, different types of on-farm trees, and food consumption patterns, these results can help elucidate the pathways by which tree-based landscapes influence diets. This study is novel in its scope and depth of analysis, moving beyond the forest/non-forest dichotomy in landscape characterization and assessing dietary quality at the micronutrient level. The findings show how trees along the farm-forest gradient can contribute to healthy diets for vulnerable populations, and can thereby inform targeted, nutrition-oriented agroforestry and/or forest restoration initiatives.

A digital version of the PhD thesis can be obtained from the PhD secretary