Forests and Human Health December-20-2013

The gifts of nature - highlights of the Non-wood Forest Products, Health and Well-being Conference, Espoo, Finland

Reported by Lu-Min Vaario
The Finnish Forest Research Institute

Forest foods and tree products such as seeds, nuts, honey, fruits, leaves, mushrooms and insects have been important components of rural diets for millennia. The wide range of medicinal plants found in forests contributes to the health and well-being of forest-dependent people and forms the basis of many pharmaceutical products now produced globally. To promote non-wood forest products to human health, the International Conference of Non-wood Forest Products, Health and Well-being was jointly organized by Helsinki University, Ruralia Institute, MTT Agrifood Research Finland, the University of Oulu, the University of Turku, the University of Eastern Finland, the Finnish Forest Research Institute, Technology Center KETEK Ltd, Rovaniemi University of applied sciences and Oulu University of applied sciences on 12-13 of November in the city of Espoo. Over 100 participants from more than 10 countries gathered for two days.

At the opening of the conference, , Prof. Hannu Raitio, director general of Metla, currently on leave of absence who is leading the merger project of the Finnish Forest Research Institute METLA, MTT Agrifood Research Finland, the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute RKTL, and part of the information Center of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, TIKE, gave the opening speech on a new arrowhead for the national economy. Prof. Raitio emphasized that we are facing new challenges in reconsidering the value of forests. With the help of modern technology and sufficient research investments, forests can be made into an indefinitely sustainable source of wealth and well-being. The International Union of Forest Research Organization (IUFRO) has had a task force Forests and Human Health that has worked to network researchers interested in the health potentials of forests and forest-based materials. Meanwhile, we need more academy programs with ample resources and the brightest people to make more networks, and to develop into one of our arrowheads into the new bio-economy.

Photo by Urszula Zimoch, University of Helsinki, Ruralia Institute

On the first day, the topics focused on nature-derived bioactive components and their possibilities. Scientists from USA, China, Netherlands and Finland reported their research activities in related fields. Prof. Pauli from the University of Illinois reported their recent analytical and interdisciplinary studies which seek to enhance the understanding of the interplay between the chemical and biological complexity of traditional medicine and health foods. Their research showed that newly developed analytical tools and concepts, such using NMR and countercurrent separation, can contribute to a better understanding of the interface between traditional agents and modern hypothesis-driven research. One research group from Beijing Forestry University, China, lead by Prof. Zhang, reported their activities on discovering health promoting products from wild berries in China. There are about 39 species of berries that are recorded as edible fruits that are widely distributed in China. Due to huge market demand, Beijing Forestry University has established a platform linking research with product testing and markets. Scientists from Finland delivered their diversity research related to berries, trees, honeys and endophytic fungi. For example, the University of Turku has established the effects of sea buckthorm juice on sugar metabolism. The University of Oulu focused on the regulation of berry development and the biosynthesis of bioactive compounds including ascorbic acid, flavonoids and anthocyanins. The Finnish Forest Research Institute together with the University of Tampere has been working on bioactive compounds which are extracted from endophytic fungi. Their study showed a great potential in the forest for discovering new bioactive compounds.

On the second day the presentations related to much wider fields, which offered a comprehensive overview of themes of products and their availability and quality, consumer behavior, and regulation affecting new business possibilities. Dr. Nestby from the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research introduced their research work on how to improve the growth of the European blueberry, which is the important raw material for many bioactive compounds. Their study has shown that studies on raw materials for producing bioactive compounds are still needed. The researcher from MTT Agrifood Research Finland discussed the relevance of production area characteristics for non-wood forest products’ demand and markets. Consumers’ growing interest in the origin of commodities is connected to new market segments, healthy lifestyles and sustainability. The researcher from Switzerland and the University of Helsinki reported on products produced by bees and how they relate to health.

Photo by Urszula Zimoch, University of Helsinki, Ruralia Institute.

In the poster section there were 17 posters covering a wide variety of research fields including research into raw materials of edible mushrooms from Finland, Italy and Croatia; bioactive compounds from berries, tree bark, stumps and pine embryogenic cells from Finland and Estonia; and the current situation of the utilization of non-wood forest products in Serbia.

This conference brought together a number of research institutes and universities from Finland and also from abroad over two days to boost new ideas and new innovation in Non-Wood Forest Products and to discuss the challenges and problems being faced. We are looking forward to the next gathering to see the progress made from now on.

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Comments: Lu-Min Vaario,