Smarter food production key to curbing forest loss - study

An aerial view of a cattle farm is seen in an Amazonian deforested jungle close to Maraba, in Brazil's central state of Para, in this May 3, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker
An aerial view of a cattle farm is seen in an Amazonian deforested jungle close to Maraba, in Brazil's central state of Para, in this May 3, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Developing countries aiming to curb greenhouse gas emissions need to create strategies that address the deforestation caused by agricultural expansion, which is the main cause of forest clearing in most nations, according to a report released this month. 

Proposals from 20 countries that are part of REDD+ - an effort led by the UN to encourage the conservation of forests with positive incentives and thereby lower carbon emissions - identify a connection between agriculture and forest degradation, but provide little in the way of detailed plans, according to an analysis by experts from the Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security of CGIAR, the  Consultative Group on  International Agriculture Research. 

“Although many countries recognize that agriculture is the driver of deforestation - 75 percent of deforestation is caused by agriculture - the plans and strategies don’t take agriculture very seriously when it comes to how we’re going to deal with that,” said Bruce Campbell, director of the research program that published the study. 

Adopted last winter at the Cancun meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), REDD+ looks to reduce deforestation, which is responsible for about 12 to 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, by paying poorer countries to preserve their tropical forests. 

But for nations already struggling to feed their populations, limiting deforestation caused by agricultural expansion is a challenge since it is tangled up in issues of food security, said Lindiwe Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Network, a research group that focuses on southern Africa’s food supply. 

“You’re dealing with farmers that are already ravaged by the effects of climate change,” Sibanda said. “They haven’t been making a profit. … Farmers know the benefits of forests but because they have no choice, they are pushed into forests.” 

And the situation could easily worsen as the world’s population grows. Food production needs to rise by 70 percent by 2050 to meet growing demand, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Administration. The FAO also predicts that changes in climate could diminish agricultural productivity by somewhere between 9 and 21 percent by 2050. 


The researchers suggest that countries seek out innovative solutions for increasing the amount of food cultivated, like trying new technology and sustainable farming practices. 

“An awful lot of farming techniques are not the most efficient - they’re just the ones that have worked for years and years,” said Dan Smith, secretary general for International Alert, a peacebuilding organization based in London . “You don’t always need to cut down huge amounts of forest in order to improve or increase the volume of food produced. It’s just that that’s the easiest way to do it.” 

 Campbell underlined the need to “intensify, as opposed to extensify” - grow more food from the same plots instead of expanding the area used. This would be particularly appropriate in sub-Saharan Africa where yields remain low, he said. 

Other ways to boost crop production and protect forest include using new farm tools that cause minimum soil disturbance, planting higher quality seeds and moving towards agroforestry, an approach in which crops and animals are managed along with forests to cut back on the clearing of trees, Sibanda said.   

“We need to make sure that we can climate-proof our agriculture by making the technologies available and accessible to our farmers,” she added. 


The study points to Brazil as a successful example. In 2004, a peak of nearly 28,000 square kilometers of forests were chopped down, according to the country's National Institute for Space Research, INPE. But after implementing several programs to protect its forests, including the Action Plan for Deforestation Control and Prevention in the Amazon, - a set of policies adopted in 2004 intended to monitor and slow deforestation - Brazil in 2009 reached its lowest level of deforestation since 1988, the year that INPE's annual surveys began. 

The report explains that over the past six years, Brazil has maintained its place as an agricultural giant while shrinking its greenhouse gas emissions and only using 6 percent of its arable land by implementing financial incentives, focusing on improving soil quality and using high-yield crop varieties to significantly increase food production. 

Isabelle Coche, a spokesperson for Farming First, a coalition that supports sustainable agriculture development, said that while the number of new technologies has been growing, governments need to invest in them to meet their countries’ food supply demands. 

“We’ve moved to an era where we have more scarcities, an era where we have not enough land and not enough water,” she said. “We really need to find a better way of freezing our footprint … increasing productivity while making sure our practices are more sustainable.” 

Coche stressed the need to close the yield gap between countries, in which some harvest only half, or sometimes even a third, of what others gather from the same amount of land. 

“The only way it’s going to solved or improved is if we have synergetic policies that look at what we do best on farm land and what we do best on forest land,” she said. “Innovation and research, and the role and uptake of new and innovative policies, is key going forward.” 


Like Coche, the paper’s researchers also emphasize the role of legislation. They recommend that countries work with their governments to integrate their REDD+ strategies into already-existing climate change and emissions regulations to ensure that REDD+ targets can be met while also sustaining a sufficient food supply that can withstand market pressures. 

“There’s no global solution,” Campbell said. “I guess the real global solution, the very first step in all the countries, is to get the strategies right.” 

 If the plans to restrict deforestation do not consider how to maintain the food supply, the consequences could be severe, Smith said. 

“Where a government for one reason of another gets any bit of that wrong, then you get a combination of food insecurity, livelihood insecurity and the possible displacement of people from areas they’ve been living, maybe moving to other areas that are barely viable or perhaps migrating to cities which are themselves struggling to support the population that they now have,” Smith said. 

“And in those contexts, again, you get those different kinds of conflicts. You get increased crime, you get gangs growing, conflict and insecurity of a different kind … as people try to secure for themselves the conditions of a half-way decent life,” he said. 

Published on, 28 Jun 2011 12:41.