Forests can help reshape ‘dysfunctional’ global food system, scientists say

No need to sacrifice forests in quest for food security
A woman shakes maize kernels out of a large bowl
Woman cleaning maize in Gwenia, Kassena Nankana District, Ghana. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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Although many modeling forecasts and government policies suggest that forests must be destroyed to make way for agriculture and provide food security as the global population soars from 7.8 billion to meet U.N. projections of 9.7 billion by 2050, a new study shows that this does not have to be the case.

Scientists with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) conducted a review of global agricultural, forestry and land-use models to determine whether forests must necessarily fall victim to growing food demand. They analyzed 63 models and found that 37 of them anticipate cropland expansion and a reduction in global forest and pastureland to feed the world’s population by 2050.

However, on a more positive note for the environment, a total of 20 scenarios project a 20 million to 2.8 billion hectare increase in forested areas, with nine predicting an increase in commercial, planted or managed forests and 11 projections anticipating that forest area will remain unchanged.

Between 1850 and 2015, to try and meet demand, global cropland area increased by 110 percent, pastureland increased by 59 percent and forested landscapes decreased by 17 percent, said Nur Bahar, a plant biologist and a CIFOR associate scientist who led the review for a research paper since published in Global Environmental Change journal.

Right now, the food system is based on producing mass quantities of food — often wheat, maize and rice staples — rather than adequately diversifying production to better nourish human populations. This scenario focused on “feeding” and “production-at-all-costs,” does not adequately consider forests, Bahar said.

“Until recently, forests were only perceived as a space for further agricultural expansion or as a threatened resource to protect from such expansion,” she added. “We have much left to do to measure and amplify the significant links between forests, trees, food security and nutrition.”

Notably, in the models showing forest gain, projected food production levels were not reduced. In these scenarios, future food demand was met by increasing agricultural productivity, reducing consumption of animal products and lowering the volume of food wasted.

Currently, animal- and plant-based forest foods contribute to 0.6 percent of the global food supply, according to statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization cited in the research paper. Research demonstrates that rural communities living in close proximity to forests often have more nutritious and diverse diets, and these nutritional benefits from forest ecosystems are often overlooked.

In addition to benefiting local communities, forests also contribute significantly to global environmental equilibrium. Increasing the number of forested landscapes and reducing deforestation are prerequisites for reducing soil erosion and greenhouse gas emissions while increasing carbon sequestration and keeping post-industrial global temperatures in check as part of efforts to meet the goals of the U.N. Paris Agreement on climate change, Bahar said.

Money talks in forest protection

Scientists anticipate that agricultural production will need to double by 2050, a premise that has shaped the policy debate on global food security, despite skepticism in some sectors based on potential variabilities in trends, climate and other factors.

Bahar and colleagues, including CIFOR Team Leader of Sustainable Landscapes & Livelihoods Amy Ickowitz and CIFOR Senior Associate Scientist Terry Sunderland, wanted to understand how land-use change would be affected as demand for food grows. They also wanted to see whether forests would necessarily have to be the casualty. Their strategy of reviewing land-use projection models — typically based on food, forest scarcity and crisis frameworks — and evaluating potential outcome scenarios, led to the discovery that economic incentives are critical.

They found that payments for keeping carbon stored in trees could form the basis of effective forest conservation strategies as demand for productive farmland increases.

Of the models that project forest increase, two demonstrate that significant forest gain occurs when carbon pricing is implemented as an incentive.

“This finding suggests that policies providing economic incentives for carbon stock conservation and enhancement is an effective option to reverse the trend of forest loss,” Bahar said.

Prevailing food production policies rely heavily on large-scale intensive farms, although evidence suggests that smaller farms under 2 hectares have greater crop diversity and less post-harvest waste. These often family-run operations produce up to 34 percent of the global food supply on 24 percent of gross agricultural area.

“Expanding cropland comes at a high environmental cost,” Bahar said. “Our review suggests that a combination of carbon taxation, reforestation, plantation development, no-deforestation policies, crop yield improvement, waste reduction and less energy-intensive diets can both conserve forests and mitigate climate change.”

At the policy level, local governance and assigning monetary value to forests will be key in reshaping the global perspective on forests to take into account their contribution to food security, Bahar said.

“Our review highlights multiple options to conserve forest primarily for carbon mitigation while securing food production and reiterates the importance of forest in food nutrition and security”, Bahar concluded. In addition to policy level measures, actions taken by individuals in reducing waste and shifting to diets with less meat can have an impact on halting future forest loss.

This research is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Forestry and Biodiversity Office.

For more information on this topic, please contact Amy Ickowitz at
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