A model silvopastoral farm established in Matiguas, Nicaragua. Shadi Azadegan/CIAT, Flickr

Rethinking food value chains for healthy forests

Sustainable agriculture can nourish forests, too

This article is brought to you by the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program.

Today is the International Day of Forests (IDF) – and this year’s theme is “Forests and Health,” which focuses on safeguarding our planet’s forests and the valuable services they provide us with.

Projects like the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program are playing their part by promoting sustainable, integrated landscapes and commodity value chains to transform the global food system.

Forests and forest resources are key to combating the climate crisis. However, despite the “priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits” that forests provide, they are being wiped out at an unprecedented rate: since 1990, the world has lost around 420 million hectares of forest – an area roughly half the size of Brazil.

So, how can we better care for our forests – and what are the risks and consequences if we fail? We asked Anja Gassner, a senior scientist with CIFOR-ICRAF and science and policy advisor to the GLF to weigh in.

What are some connections that we can make between healthy forests and healthy people?

Gassner: It’s very important to look at the vital role that forests play in regulating the climate – which, in turn, is so important to growing nutritious food. We know that ecosystems are interconnected, and while we still can’t forecast the magnitude of the impact, we do know that losing one function triggers irreversible effects at a range of scales.

We know that forests provide global, regional, and local ecosystem services, including soil health, and carbon capture. This not only helps regulate water availability but is actually essential for the rainfall patterns that humans and our food production systems have adapted to. 

For example, trees and plants draw water from the soil and exhale it into the atmosphere, which affects how heat and water are balanced on the Earth’s surface. That controls the weather, essentially.

Deforestation has a clear and dramatic effect on rainfall. And, as we all know, we are losing our forests.

The bottom line is: if we don’t have forests and other natural ecosystems, we can’t grow food. They actually give us the foundation for producing food.

What might happen if we continue to ignore how ecosystems at global, regional, and local levels are all connected?

Gassner: A good example is the Amazon ‘tipping point.’ Tipping points are rapid, brutal changes in socio-ecological systems triggered by slow variables. When tipping points are reached, those systems change and it becomes almost impossible to reverse the process.

The Amazon is in real danger of ceasing to be a rainforest due to deforestation rates combined with rising temperatures, seasonal instability and wildfires. The Amazon biome is already struggling to produce its own rain and may be losing its function as a water-generating rainforest. This is what we mean by the ‘tipping point’ for the Amazon, and its early stages are already underway.

Without the Amazon’s vital function of climate regulation within the Amazon basin, cattle ranching might no longer be possible at all, for example.

The point is that we cannot ignore what is happening to forests such as the Amazon, because everything is so interconnected. Nobody knows just what our actions today will mean in the longer term – that is, if you change wind or rainfall, nobody knows what this will really mean and what the outcomes will be.

What can we do to support forest conservation while promoting sustainable agriculture?

Gassner: If we accept that we need functioning forests to have the water and the biomass to grow crops or produce livestock, then the question is: how do we design food production systems that support and enhance the functioning of natural ecosystems, such as forests?

Put another way, we need more holistic strategies such as integrated landscape approaches: essentially, a governance strategy that engages multiple stakeholders to reconcile societal and environmental objectives at the landscape scale to identify trade-offs and potential synergies for more sustainable and equitable land management.

Forests need genetic flow, and patches of natural habitat within agricultural landscapes can provide these vital “stepping stones” for seeds, animals and plants to move between landscapes.

We need a transformative shift away from policies that favor mostly simplified, monocultural, conventional agriculture, and toward policies that actively promote biodiversity-friendly mixed farming at a landscape scale. Many farmers around the world already manage mixed farming systems, combining a diversity of crops, animals and trees with different spatial and seasonal arrangements.

Not only does this support both connectivity and integrity of forests, but it also directly contributes to reductions in pollution. Mixed farming systems mimic natural processes, making the best of interactions between each part.

What would a sustainable food commodity value chain look like?

Gassner: Sustainability in food production goes beyond ecology. The socioeconomic and political dimensions of sustainable development have often been neglected. In agricultural production especially, sustainability is often synonymous with increased efficiency in production. This means producing greater yields with less land, water, and fertilizer, rather than sustainability in an economic or social sense.

The rise of highly specialized, vertically integrated, large commodity-producing landscapes has resulted in a decline in agrobiodiversity, unequal bargaining power along the value chains, a lack of options for farmers, and increasing barriers to market access for other produce. This has direct negative effects on household food consumption. 

So when we talk about sustainable value chains, we need to think about balancing global value chains with local and regional value chains and products. The reconstruction of regional and local agri-food systems and value chains will not only provide for the diverse dietary demands of rural populations but also directly benefit producer families and create job and business opportunities in rural areas, especially for young people.

Harvesting irrigated fields, Indonesia. Curt Carnemark / World Bank, Flickr

How does this highlight the importance of protecting biodiversity in a forest or other landscape?

Gassner: In the last few years, with a renewed focus on biodiversity, there has been a realization that we are all sitting in one ecosystem – it’s all interconnected. The new biodiversity framework agreed in Montreal in December 2022 acknowledged this for the first time and – very importantly – adopted a landscape approach. That included conservation goals that said we need to enhance the connectivity and integrity of agro-ecosystems.

So then we ask: how can you design your farms and production systems to support integrity and connectivity at a landscape scale? That is, how do you bring in more landscape elements?

For many, the most direct way is through trees. Because if you put in agroforestry and forests strategically, if you carry out forest restoration and use rivers, it will bring back connectivity with both wildlife and a genetic flow between the forests.

Perhaps one idea would be to connect specialists in commodity value chains with landscape ecologists to understand the best way to enhance connectivity and integrity.

How else can sustainability enhance our well-being?

Gassner: Sustainability is not just an ecological force but also involves the social and economic. Consider mixed farms, where people grow a variety of crops, reducing their risk if one crop fails while enhancing their household nutrition. In contrast, when commodities are produced mainly for export or sale, rather than directly feeding and supporting households, it can have an adverse effect on nutrition at the household level.

What are some next steps needed to transition to a more sustainable, healthy system?

Gassner: We really need initiatives such as the FOLUR Impact Program for two main purposes: first, to provide public seed funds to support the transition to integrated landscapes that promote the connectivity and integrity of ecosystems at a landscape scale; and second, to lend a hand through research and development expertise to support the production of local fruit and vegetables for domestic consumption.

This article is focused on value chains in support of the work of the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR), with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

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