Beyond wood: the other hidden assets of Europe’s forests

The work of this study aims to shed light on the importance of harvesting non-wood forest products (NWFP) at the European level. Through a survey, the results show that 26% of European households collect NWFPs.

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Photo: Adobestock

Alongside wood-based products, forests also produce Non-Wood Forest Products (NWFPs), such as berries, mushrooms, aromatic, medicinal and decorative plant material, nuts, saps and resins. In Europe, collecting NWFPs is an important part of cultural heritage and is closely linked to the recreational function of forests. Moreover, NWFPs are important for the profitability of many small and medium forest-based enterprises.

Nevertheless, for the past decades these products have been mostly considered as “minor” or “side products” and thus only given rather marginal importance by forest managers and decision makers. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, their economic importance has been considered rather low (when compared to wood). However, this perception results from missing data, rather than being evidence based. On the other hand, these products are used by different sectors (e.g., food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, decoration), which means that there is no specific sector that enhances their importance. Finally, an important share of NWFPs is collected, consumed and traded by households and in informal settings, and reliable information about this is vastly absent.

To address this lack of knowledge and explore the real social and economic importance these products have in the European context, we conducted the first ever Europe-wide scientific study, with 17,346 respondents in 28 European countries. The study explored the collection and consumption habits, quantities of collected products and their corresponding values for 46 different NWFPs.

Overall the results show that every fourth (26%) European household collects some NWFPs and that the market value of collected NWFPs is worth about 23.3 billion € per year. The most popular collected NWPFs are berries, wild mushrooms, forest nuts, wild medicinal and aromatic herbs and decorative products (see Figure 1). About 86% of the NWFPs are consumed by the collectors and their families, which underlines their social importance.

Figure 1

There are important variances in collection habits and frequencies between different countries. The frequency and collected amounts are higher in Eastern Europe, where the collection of NWFPs is more related to subsistence, while in Western European countries forest recreation is indicated as the main reason for collecting NWFPs. Nevertheless, the elevated social importance of NWFPs is without doubt present in the whole of Europe.

As with any large study, this one has also assumptions and approximations embedded in its research design. But even so, these results clearly indicate that we are not talking about “minor” forest products, but rather an important product group, as their estimated economic value is only 30% lower than the value of harvested roundwood in European forests and almost 11 times higher than previously estimated.

In the context of forest management and development of policies this also suggests that NWFPs should be assigned more significance when defining policies and strategies for different sectors (including those for rural development, tourism) and management objectives.

From the perspective of collectors and to a certain degree also forest owners, it would be important to develop practical knowledge about the potential of commercializing NWFPs, and to raise awareness about the potential for diversifying income by considering a broader range of NWFPs (currently only a handful of NWFPs are actively commercialized).

To conclude, following the results of our study, non-wood forest products, which were always perceived as the “side stream” of wood production, have certainly the potential to become a “main stream” product in many parts of Europe. However, to achieve this will require the active engagement of a number of actors and sectors.

Full reference

Marko Lovrić, Riccardo Da Re, Enrico Vidale, Irina Prokofieva, Jennifer Wong, Davide Pettenella, Pieter Johannes Verkerk, Robert Mavsar. 2020. Non-wood forest products in Europe – A quantitative overview. Forest Policy and Economics, Volume 116, 2020, 102175.

More information

The study was supported by funding received from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement no. 311919 (project StarTree) and Horizon 2020 EU Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement no. 773297 (project BioMonitor).

The manuscript is also available at Zenodo