Nur Bahar and Terry Sunderland illustrate why it is important to challenge the narrative of ‘food production-at-all-cost’ at the expense of our forests

It seems like a compelling and logical argument; as the global population increases, that we need to grow more food to feed ever more hungry people. One projection by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecasts that, by 2050, an additional 69 million ha (an area approximately twice the size of Germany) will be needed to grow sufficient food for a global population of an estimated 10 billion people. With agriculture remaining the greatest driver of deforestation, such expansion will certainly come at the expense of forests.

The dual narratives of doubling world food production by 2050 and a focus on production  alone have dominated the discourse on global food security for the past 70 years and strongly influence decision making on land use. Furthermore, the prevailing goal of producing mass quantities of high calorific food (wheat, rice, maize and other staples) obscures the other equally important goals such as providing micronutrient-rich food, notably fruits and vegetables, that contribute to diverse diets.

Hence, it is not surprising that a recent review led by ourselves and our partners found that the majority of the global projections on future food systems anticipate expansion of croplands at the expense of forests and pastureland. The review assessed a large number of the main global modelling studies to evaluate the potential production outcomes on global forest cover. We posited that numerous scenarios expect significant cropland expansion in 2050, with the median and mean of 84 million ha and 105 million ha respectively – which is actually a greater area of expansion than the FAO’s own forecast.

The projected expansion of agriculture into forests comes with high environmental costs. These include significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature rises, loss of carbon sequestration potential and an increase in soil erosion. Moreover, other ecosystem services crucial for food production such as pollination, disease control and nutrient cycling diminishes greatly when deforestation takes place. Such trade-offs are widely acknowledged and have led to recent commitments to reduce permanent forest conversion for agriculture, most recently the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use.

However, upon closer examination, our review also revealed that over a third of modelled projections show that it is possible to feed the growing population without destroying forests. Specifically, we identified 11 scenarios associated with the absence of agricultural expansion, and thus zero deforestation. In addition, 20 scenarios actually project a 20 million to 2.8 billion hectare increase in forested areas to meet ambitious climate and restoration goals. The scenarios are built on the assumptions that society has made the necessary transition to achieve adequate green growth while respecting environmental boundaries; all of which underpin the basis for the final commitments from the recent COP26 in Glasgow.

To reverse the trend of forest loss and mitigate climate change, policies that provide economic incentives for carbon storage through the conservation of existing forests and the planting of new ones are essential. In all the scenarios we tested, future food demand was met by improving agricultural productivity, reducing the consumption of animal products and reducing the volume of food wasted. The results provide compelling evidence that deforestation is not a necessarily precondition for supplying the world with sufficient food in terms of both quantity and quality in 2050.

Our findings reiterate that we have technologies and policies at our disposal to halt further agricultural expansion and contribute to climate change mitigation. For instance, agricultural yield improvement can lead to a reduction in cropland expansion and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the overemphasis on few high-yielding crop varieties, which are selected for productivity and calorific values rather than for their nutritional value, disregards pressing issues of undernourishment and malnutrition. Two billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiencies collectively known as “hidden hunger” which have been exacerbated during the global pandemic and will be further exacerbated by a changing climate.

A major, systemic shift from the production-oriented to nutrition-oriented goals with a renewed focus on diverse diets including fruits, vegetables, as well as non-commercial foods such as wild or underutilised foods, could transform our currently dysfunctional food systems. Such a shift provides better opportunities for less-intensive smallholder farmers, family-farms and more integrated and diverse agroecological systems to thrive. These types of farming are shown to harbour greater crop diversity and lower post-harvest loss than larger farms.

Forests and trees on farms also serve an important role in meeting nutrition-oriented goals, since animal- and plant- based forest foods contribute to 0.6% of the global food supply; a small but important nutritional contribution to rural diets. A variety of forest foods are consumed by many forest proximate societies on a regular basis, meeting the seasonal food and nutritional gaps of forest-dependent communities.

There is currently a market-driven tendency to prioritise carbon sequestration services provided by forests over other goods and services. An increase in forest area does not necessarily translate to greater provision of a broader range of ecosystem services such as food provision, biodiversity and water regulation. This is particularly true for reforestation and restoration efforts with simplified tree systems with considerably lower ecological and biodiversity value than natural vegetation. Recognising the contribution of forests and trees in food security and food production could help us to add value to forests beyond carbon sequestration alone.

Given the often-conflicting demands on land, decision makers should conduct assessment of risks, synergies and trade-offs to maximise synergies across the food and forest sectors and enhance policy coherence. It is expected that complementary mitigation policies can meet the objectives of climate stabilisation, environmental and biodiversity protection and food security and nutrition simultaneously. More importantly, such policies and commitments need to be further substantiated with action on the ground for more integrated, and sustainable, forest and agricultural sectors.



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© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

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