Does Producing More Food Have to Lead to Deforestation?

A new report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that we don’t need to clear-cut to find more farmland.

Clear-cutting forests in the Amazon is fueled mostly by cattle ranches and soy bean cultivation. The rest is from small-scale subsistence agriculture. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jul 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

We don’t have to chop down more of the world’s forests to feed the planet’s burgeoning population of people, according to a new report from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization. If that sounds too good to be true, it may very well be.

To be sure, Earth’s last remaining natural forests could use some good news—especially tropical forests, which during the first decade of this century saw average losses of some 7 million hectares each year. As the U.N.’s report details, more than 70 percent of the world’s forest destruction is being driven by agriculture, whether to create large-scale commercial operations or small subsistence farms. Since 1990, the planet has lost nearly 130 million hectares of forest, and although the rate of loss has slowed worldwide, there remains the looming prospect of nearly 2 billion additional mouths to feed by 2050, according to the U.N.’s population estimates.

“There has always been the thinking that in order to produce more food to feed the growing population, you need to clear more land for agriculture,” Eva Müller, director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at the FAO and lead coordinator of the report, told Reuters. Not so, she maintains.

At first, the seven diverse countries offered by Müller and her team as case studies for the relationship between forests and farmland would seem to prove just that—and to provide hope that the rest of the world might follow suit. Each country increased its agricultural production and the food security of its people while at the same time increasing the amount of forested area, sometimes dramatically. Both Tunisia and Vietnam, for example, saw their forested areas increase by approximately 60 percent between 1990 and 2015.

How these seven countries—the others are Chile, Costa Rica, the Gambia, Georgia, and Ghana—protected their forests while boosting agricultural production varied according to their social, political, and economic circumstances. But common themes emerge, some of which merit international attention. More coordinated land planning, for example, means a more holistic approach to coordinating different land uses, while improved land rights gives local citizens an incentive for better stewardship.

“Secure and clear land title is key, because if people have the right to land, they will treat the land differently than if they don’t,” Müller told Reuters.

Another innovative approach is to pay landowners for the significant environmental services that forests perform. Those range from storing carbon and filtering water to providing habitat for endangered species as well as the vital pollinators that service crops. Such a system not only rewards landowners for keeping forests intact but also transforms the perception of the forest from “untamed”—read: unused—wilderness into a legitimate natural resource.

Yet for all the good ideas in the U.N. report, there remains a lingering sense that they may not be enough. Many of the countries presented as case studies have seen their economies flourish during the past two decades and the rate of population growth slow, with many rural populations declining—a demographic shift that alleviates the pressure to destroy forests. Also, most countries don’t have the same opportunities to transform their forests into a booming ecotourism industry, as Costa Rica has, for example.

But what’s unsettling is the more vague discussion by Müller and her team about boosting agricultural productivity, which seems to evoke the specter of a more industrialized agriculture—the likes of which haven’t exactly been a boon to the environment in countries like the United States, where Big Ag reigns supreme.

It may be that we all need to accept bigger farms, “economies of scale,” more irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and the “application of new technologies in genetics” (by which we can only imagine the authors are talking about GMO crops) if we are to feed more people while protecting the last of the world’s forests.

But there’s a rather glaring omission in the U.N. report: What about the other side of the equation? What about working to change the worrisome trends in the way people eat, which are tending to the more carnivorous? Trying to feed 9 billion meat eaters is a different proposition from trying to feed 9 billion vegetarians—raising meat, particularly cattle and larger animals, gobbles up more land per calorie produced than any other agricultural use. Close to 65 percent of the deforestation in Brazil, for example, is connected to cattle ranching; a study published last year determined that “consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity.”

What’s more, while we all might not be able to, say, implement a sustainable land-use policy on a national scale in a developing country, we can do our part to conserve the world’s forests by upping our consumption of plant-based foods and lowering our consumption of meat.