Mr Encarnacion Mamani Larico in front of his Brazil nut based agroforest. Photo by Rens Brouwer.

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There is increasing global awareness of the need to radically change the way we produce our food. We need to find new sustainable solutions, which balance food production with environmental and social benefits. The global food system is causing large-scale environmental damage and is a major contributor to climate change. It is based on the cultivation of only a few crops and does not produce enough fruits and vegetables, both the overproduction of a narrow range of crops and the underproduction of nutritious crops are contributing to diet-related health problems globally.

Experts are increasingly recognizing the extraordinary diversity of tropical tree species to be vital to planetary health, especially their role in climate change mitigation. But tropical trees are poorly integrated into food systems. Tree diversity offers the potential for new sustainable production, providing livelihood benefits and multiple services, including improved human nutrition.

In this Perspective article, we discuss how an increased focus on tropical tree-based food production has the potential to redesign the global food system and simultaneously make it more environmentally and socially sustainable, while contributing to improved human nutrition at the local, regional and global level. 

We present an overview of the environmental, nutritional and livelihood benefits of tropical tree-based foods and show that tree-based foods provide important contributions to critical micronutrient intake (Vitamin A and C) in rural populations in seven countries. We also discuss several risks and limitations that must be taken into account when scaling-up tropical tree-based food production, including the importance of using diverse production systems and risks associated with supply to the global markets.

We conclude by discussing several interventions addressing technical, financial, political and consumer-behavior barriers, with potential to increase the consumption and production of tropical tree-based foods, to catalyze a transition towards more sustainable global food systems.