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Rio+20 Dialogues: How will we fight world hunger without forests?

"A healthy forest is synonymous with a rich biodiversity that can be used to supplement the supply."

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Converting forest to agricultural land does not necessarily lead to increases in food production, so how do we make sure that the nine billion people expected to populate the planet in 2050 do not go hungry? This is just one of the questions being debated in an online forum organised by the Government of Brazil to inform the discussions on sustainable development at Rio+20 – and best of all, you can have your say too.

The Rio+20 Dialogues, which are already live, will produce a series of recommendations to frame a formal three-hour plenary discussion inside the main venue of Rio+20 and will be presented to heads of state gathering in Brazil for the summit.

CIFOR, along with Yale University and the University of Sao Paulo, is moderating the dialogue on forests and has recently posed a series of questions on the importance of forests for food security. Here are some excerpts from the ongoing debate. To have your say, sign up at www.riodialogues.org/forests

Carlos Vasquez
Thu, April 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Q: Research suggests that 9 billion people will inhabit the planet in 2050 and will have an additional 1 billion hectares of agricultural land to produce food that you need. Where this land come and how can we avoid drastic loss of forest cover?

Population control and adopt responsible consumption habits, there is another, the earth does not grow, the population if, trying to make enough for a growing population and wasteful is impossible.

Q: In a world with enough food for all, a billion people remain hungry. If markets can not solve the problem, how we can fight hunger in the world with forests?

A healthy forest is synonymous with a rich biodiversity that can be used to supplement the supply.

Q: Does the conversion of forests into agricultural land actually increase agricultural production in general? Agricultural intensification is the solution?

No, the forests are central to the hydrologic cycle and this is essential for agriculture, is the other way, but better forest crops.

Q: What role can the private sector in promoting sustainable patterns of food production that put less pressure on forests?

None, the private sector always look for the for-profit in their activities, and an economy in extracting basasda to sell and make big profits can not expect much. The only thing would set limits and require them to comply.

Francois Brochu
Sun, April 29, 2012 at 05.11 pm

I don’t believe so, forest are needed yes, but not as a nutritional bounty. If anything, forests are very fragile, especially if thousands, millions, or billions of people start foraging for food, there will be no forest left.

Why is it that developed country believed what that they really know what is best for the developing country? In western Africa where more than 2/3 of the population lives with subsistence farming, they are relatively happy, just ask the village Chief. There is no electricity, no running water, no washroom, but there is 2 cellphones. What they really want is access to “clean” water, a cistern in the middle of the village, so people don’t have to die during the dry season.

The food is usually plentiful if the rainy season is reliable; it’s the years when the precipitations are too low, that is when problem start. Solve the access to water issue, and everything will fall into place. Yes, I know it’s easier say then done; cynically, it’s a lot easier to send bags of rice or grains, which requires water for process, and enrich the already developed country at the same time.

Sven Wonders
Mon, April 30, 2012 at 06.26 pm

I don’t know know where the 80%+ estimate comes from [eds: Previous post: Forests are a nutritional bounty that can supply up to 80% of rural household food needs and also provide a critical safety net during times of civil conflict or crop failures], but suspect it must be from a hunterer-gatherer environment, where people live deep inside the forest at low pop densities.

Now, why did the human race not remain confined to hunterer-gatherer societies? Because more food could be produced in agriculture than gathered from the wild. This is not new in any way, and it is why people have converted forests to croplands and pastures — and still do so. Which again is one of the main reasons why we have experienced such a remarkable growth in both human populations and in per-capita food consumption, increase in ecologically “expensive” animal calories consumed, etc. To say that forests can feed a world with ever growing pop numbers seems to be like to deny some of the most basic realities of human history. We need forests, but perhaps mainly for the commercial products (especially timber) they provide, as Ronnie pointed out, and we need them for the environmental (regulatory) services they provide, the reach of which we are only starting to grasp as we reckon the damages from losing forest biomes. That is not to deny forests their important complementary role in rural people’s diet. For instance, bushmeat is more important than livestock in many parts of Central Africa. Hedging these nutritional functions by managing the natural resources rationally is vitally important.

Photo courtesy of Luke Parry/CIFOR.

Our recent results in the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) project (//www.cifor.org/pen) also reconfirm that these forest-extractive activities play an important role for forest-near rural smallholders in developing countries by providing about one fifth of household incomes — and part of that is for food consumption. But there is not much scope to actively increase that contribution to feed growing human populations. For instance, could we raise Central African bushmeat extraction by 50%? No we couldn’t, because it is already at too high and unsustainable extraction levels. And many forest ecologists and managers would be horrified about the idea of trying to, because it may endanger all the other services we get from forests. In that sense, I find the rhetorics about the potential of forests for feeding the world not only illusionary, but also potentially dangerous.

Manuel Boissiere
Tuesday May 1, 2012 at 3:44 am

I totally agree that forests are not going to feed the world. That would not only be simplistic and naïve, but also dangerous, as Sven pointed out.

This said, if forests carrying capacity has its limits, we cannot dismiss the fact that a part of rural societies are fed by forest products, directly (bushmeat and other NTFPs) or indirectly (swidden cultivation etc).

But then who are they? Some remote hunter-gathers “from another time”, when the rest of the world has “evolved” to large-scale agriculture? Actually, even if some societies are hunter-gatherers, the majority of the communities living in and near the forest, and depending on forest resources, are also farmers, they raise cattle, and they extract timber for cash income. So, what makes the difference with “the rest of the world”? The low population density, which allows low impact on forests.

Even if they use shifting cultivation, extract log, sell bushmeat, these societies don’t have a big impact because their density is in general around one inhabitant per square km. If that density changes, there will be an increase in the production of forest ecosystem services, access will increase too (and will have an accelerating effect on demography), and the whole system will become unsustainable.

In conclusion, yes the forests feed forest-dependant populations, not only hunter-gatherer, when population density is low and in quite remote landscapes, but no they cannot feed the world neither can their productivity be artificially increased to feed larger numbers of people.

Mary Menton
yesterday at 02:53 am

Starting from the premise that I agree entirely that forests cannot feed the world by themselves, I want to question one of your points, Manuel. While I would agree that the food productivity of forests cannot be artificially increased on a scale to feed 9 billion, there are ways to increase productivity to enhance the food security of those living nearby. I have seen examples in Brazil of households that raise wild game animals in semi-captivity and others of enrichment planting of key NTFP species (Brazil nut, açaí, others) and silvicultural treatments to increase productivity (vine cutting, clearing of understorey, similar). While these activities will not be enough in themselves, they can help increase the forest’s contribution to food security. The cost-benefit of such activities, however, are still in need of further evaluation.

Manuel Boissiere
yesterday at 06:41 am

I agree with your point, Mary, but I still believe that it is a matter of scale and population pressure. Innovations in agriculture, farming, and agro-forestry are perfectly viable ways to increase productivity while sustaining forests, as long as the scale remains local.

In Papua too, to give another example of what you described in Brazil, villagers raise pigs in semi captivity to allow breeding with wild boar and increase strength and productivity of the herds. This has been the case for generations. The problem is when we move from a locally relevant innovation to a scale that is supposed to feed the rest of the world. But I think we agree on that.

Then there is the problem of competition between food crops and cash crops. In some places of Papua, because of the low human pressure, food is not the issue (local people extract starch from wild sago, and in a region where 20,000 people share 30,000 sq km of forest, it’s not really a problem). Therefore it’s not innovation on food productivity that is sought. It’s rather cash income… for local governments and for local people. And then it’s all about cost-benefit and choices…

Robert RICE
Sat 30 April, 2012 at 2:32 am

Not only will there be more mouths to feed, but increasingly wealthy societies will demand a more (animal) protein-rich diet, which will require considerable additional land and investment. With much of the world’s productive land already under some form of cultivation, policy makers are struggling to reconcile the need to grow additional food with the need to avoid encroaching on already threatened natural ecosystems, especially forests.

About the question of intensification or the efficiency of converting forest for food production, some advocate
a process of “land sharing”, whereby agricultural production takes place within complex multi-functional landscapes. Others favor “land sparing”, where agricultural production on already cultivated or marginal lands is maximized, so that other areas are set aside for the conservation of biodiversity.

Although the “land sparing” versus “land sharing” debate presents itself as a black or white choice there are in fact many shades of grey in trying to optimize land-use , dependent on a multitude of interacting factors: be they geographical, ecological, economic, social and political. Based on existing literature and on-the-ground realities, it seems that:

  • Intensively managed agro-ecosystems can be combined with protected areas or low intensity managed systems at the landscape level where intensification is possible;
  • In several contexts, intensification is not possible and land sharing options (e.g. shifting cultivation practices and smallholder production systems) may be more effective to produce food and protect environment;
  • The choice is not between land sparing or land sharing but rather on how to best apply a mix of both depending on the socio-ecological system considered and the anticipated trajectory of change;
  • As a corollary to the above, more food production does not guarantee less hunger, unless the existing inequities in purchasing and distributing food and our immense waste of food are addressed

For those interested in debating these questions in Rio, there will be a learning event during the Agriculture and Rural Development Day (18 June morning). You can register here.

Philippe Waldhoff
Wed, May 2, 2012 at 06.48 pm

The role of forests for the production of food munduial believe is not yet fully understood. On the one hand, we have the importance of forest services related to the cycling of water and thus the contribution of rain formation, essential in food production. On the other hand, forests have direct providers of food. If we consider the Amazon basin, especially the animals and fish that are part of the diet and income of local people depend on forests (wetlands) to feed and reproduce. The forests also produce food directly to the local, regional and global levels.

Products such as acai (Euterpe sp.) And Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) have great importance in the diet of local people and are widely marketed. In these cases, the income from the sale of products may contribute to the maintenance of forests and forest peoples. The forest, I believe, should have its primary focus on food production for the world’s population. However, its role as a provider of services to a broad population related to food production and products, especially for people living in the forest or near it, can and should be strengthened by means of instruments, political, economic and members.

Terence Hay-Edie
yesterday at 03.10 pm

The definition of what constitutes a forest (and I am not referring to the old debate of the “crown density” of the canopy) is critical to address the interface with food production. There seems to be an assumption in some of the comments posted that the only option is the collection of so-called “wild” resources in the form of bush meat and the like. In reality, there are innumerable examples of forests as anthropic systems, cultivated and maintained, through complex agroforestry practices.

Passionfruit are prolific in North Sumatera. Photo courtesy of Anan Lowell/flickr.

In the case of Sumatra, Indonesia, which has very high human population densities, the landscape (which looks to the untrained eye like a ‘natural’ forest) is in fact a fully human-controlled system of regulatory and sustaining ecological services, not least for food production through a terraced system of multiple fruit and other NTFP production species (cinnamon, durian, lemons, custard apples etc) at different levels of the understory. The People & Plants Initiative, alongside ICRAF and CIFOR, have all been very active in documenting excellent examples of how successful agroforestry systems work in practice (which can also feed large numbers of people).

In particular, I would highly recommend a Working Paper of agroforestry systems from Kerinci Seblat (links below). However, in order to achieve a Java/Sumatra style of intensive agroforestry systems, a high degree of traditional ecological knowledge  (TEK), as well as human labour, invested in the landscapes is often required — somewhat akin to a landscape-scale “gardening” exercise. The Government of Japan Satoyama Initiative has raised some interesting questions globally on how we are going to be able to keep these complex socio-ecological production landscapes going in different parts of the world. Through a partnership with the Satoyama Initiative, the GEF Small Grants Programme (implemented by UNDP) is in the process of field testing a promising set of socio-ecological resilience indicators in this regard.




Sven Wonders
3 May at 04.39 pm

[sorry, the system inexplicably just “ate” half of my message on first posting attempt — maybe it was worried about food security, too?] 😉

Some good contributions here, but I feel tempted to a small definitional note on forests — indeed important to know what we are talking about, as Terrence just said. FAO has a mandate in both agriculture and forestry, and its forest definition is the most widely used (http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1757e/i1757e13.pdf): “Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds in situ. It does not include land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban uses”. My emphasis here is to indicate that unlike Terrence I´d note count agroforests as forests, and lemons not as NTFPs (but as crops) — and I think so does FAO. Where we definitely agree is that these more heavily man-manipulated systems have a higher potential for food production — arguably so proportional to their systemic closeness to agriculture, which after all is a specialized system to produce the maximum amount of food…. Some of them have trees, and they may produce rich environmental services. In CIFOR, we are now working in consortium with our sister organizations ICRAF, CIAT and Bioversity to look at the linkages within the full spectrum of these land uses. However, even the name of the consortium programme (“Forests, Trees, and Agroforestry”) indicates that forests and agroforests are close cousins, but still not the same thing.

Onofre Corpuz
4 May 2012

Agricultural land can be increased to support the food supply of billions of people without deforesting the remaining forest of the world by planting shade tolerance agricultural crops on forested areas. Another thing is to employ agroforestry wherein agricultural crops are planted in association with trees. This farming practice is proven effective in by researchers. In the Philippines, we have the so called Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT-I) where in agricultural crops is planted along alleys of trees used as hedgerows. SALT-II is also used for introduction of animals within the syste. SALT-III on the other hand is used when the area is highly slope where trees are planted uphill to protect the soil from erosion.

Michelle Kovacevic
4 May 2012

Some of you might find CIFOR’s recently launched forests and food security multimedia package interesting. It talks about some of the different ways that people around the world are promoting both forest conservation and food security.

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets Bushmeat