Forest and agriculture in Brazil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
The world can simultaneously improve food security and save tropical forests by better optimizing land use, factoring in the true costs of biofuels, boosting yields on existing farmland, encouraging production away from forest frontiers, and supporting efforts to develop more sustainable community roundtables, concludes a new report released Monday by the National Wildlife Federation.
The Food, Forest and Carbon Challenge [PDF] was released to coincide with climate talks in Durban where forest conservation and food security are front-and-center. Both issues are inexorably linked to climate change. Forests can help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon, while agriculture, as currently practiced, is often a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the tropics. Both tropical forests and agriculture could be adversely affected by a warming planet.
The new report, written by Princeton University’s Tim Searchinger, challenges some conventionally-held beliefs on drivers of deforestation for crop production, including the idea that increased productivity will necessarily reduce pressure on forests.
“Boosting yields on existing agricultural land in developing countries is critical to feed people better and does save land globally, but such efforts alone can lead to even more forest loss, especially in tropical countries,” said Searchinger in a statement. “To both feed people and save forests, agricultural improvements and forest protection efforts must go hand in hand.”
The report, which also considers wetlands, savannas and grasslands — ecosystems often overlooked in climate discussions, suggests that efforts to boost productivity should focus on lifting yields of staple foods for domestic production, increasing production by on existing farmland, and encouraging production away from forest frontiers. It says export agriculture in the tropics “should be focused on tropical crops, preferably with high labor demands and high revenues per hectare.”
Barbara Bramble, senior advisor for National Wildlife Federation’s International Climate and Energy Program, says that identifying policies grounded in reality in critical to reducing deforestation while meeting global demand for food, which is expected to rise 70 percent by 2050.
“In a perfect world we would all become vegetarians, who only buy locally grown, organic food,” said Bramble. “But the reality is we cannot expect to see a ground up solution to this Rubik’s cube. The world’s policy makers are the ones who will determine whether or not we can find a sustainable solution to these inter-locking problems in time.”
The Food, Forest and Carbon Challenge recommends policies that “encourage more efficient output from all land, whether the primary output is carbon sequestration, food, fiber or biological diversity.”
“From a carbon perspective, policies should encourage land use change only when that change is the most likely way to optimize land capacity.”
The report holds out hope that emerging commodity roundtables — like Bonsucro for sugar cane, the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, and the Leather Working Group — involving multiple stakeholders could help provide a path forward if they encourage agricultural expansion “only where it can achieve a high ratio of output to carbon loss.”
“There are ways to optimize production of both food and carbon storage – the two are not mutually exclusive,” said Nathalie Walker, manager for National Wildlife Federation’s Tropical Forests.