A grove of trees standing next to a farm. PROJECTO CAFÉ GATO-MOURISCO, Unsplash

How to produce more food without turning forests into fields

A new FAO report looks at what needs to be done to balance food and forests

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By Tiina Vähänen, Deputy Director, Forestry Division, and Serena Fortuna, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

As the global population rises, we are projected to need up to 50% more food by 2050 than we needed in 2012. We face a huge challenge to feed the world while at the same time protecting our forests from agricultural expansion, which drives almost 90 percent of deforestation globally.

Yet this challenge presents a huge opportunity we cannot afford to miss. It is possible to transform the global food system so that agriculture and forests both grow, rather than one growing at the expense of the other. It is possible, essential in fact, for agriculture and forests to be mutually beneficial, not mutually exclusive. 

If we move to this way of thinking and operating – worldwide – the result will be a sustainable food system that contributes hugely to fighting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and boosting the global economy. If we don’t, the outlook is bleak. 

So how do we do this? 

At this critical moment, a new paper from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Halting deforestation from agricultural value chains: the role of governments, assesses the progress made and outlines what still needs to be done. 

Governments have a crucial role to play, including creating the conditions than enable the changes needed on a scale that will make a difference. 

Consumer countries have already taken steps, like setting import standards for agricultural goods, dedicating finance to support small-holder farmers in producer countries and committing funding to more sustainable agricultural supply chains.

Producer countries are putting a range of strategies into place from land use planning to more forest-friendly agricultural practices and payments for ecosystem services. Global initiatives such as REDD+ support many producer countries to achieve significant results, halting deforestation, boosting transformational change and unlocking climate finance for future reinvestments. FAO, including through a UN-REDD partnership, supports developing countries with their REDD+ process and in turning their commitments into action on the ground. 

Yet far greater coordination is needed across consumer and producer countries to create truly transformative agri-food systems that can produce more food – ensuring food security and nutrition for the growing population – without converting forests into fields. 

Governments worldwide must provide this coordination so that different sectors and stakeholders at all levels – international, national, regional and local – work towards shared goals. Governments should create the legislative frameworks and provide financing and market conditions that favour approaches based on the synergies between forestry and agriculture. Decision-makers must address trade-offs in mutually supportive ways.

The private sector has pledged to eliminate deforestation from its supply chains including through the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014. Industry standards and certification systems have since been put in place that aim for a net-zero ‘deforestation footprint’ for commodities such as beef, palm oil, soy, cacao, coffee, rubber and others. However, greater efforts to implement these commitments are needed for concrete progress. 

At the same time, producers – most of whom are in tropical and sub-tropical countries – struggle to meet these standards because they require huge changes on the ground.  Shifting to more sustainable farming methods often involves up-front investment in new equipment, a period of education and training and changes of crops and land use during which the usual harvests on which livelihoods often depend are missed. The process for obtaining certification itself, once new processes are in place, can also be prohibitively time consuming and expensive. 

Small-holder farmers, who produce 35 percent of the world’s food but often live in poverty, need far more support to overcome these barriers. 

Producer countries – where the vast majority of deforestation takes place – face the greatest challenges in bringing about the changes needed. They face a daily balancing act between their commitments to international deforestation and climate change targets and their need to ensure food security and livelihoods for their populations. 

Yet they must develop policies that tackle the underlying causes of unsustainable farming practices, strengthen governance and improve law enforcement. And they must ensure agriculture and forest data is up to date, open, transparent and accessible. 

Consumer countries and the private sector must step up efforts to support the countries producing our food, as they need far more financial and technical support to do it in ways that will save our planet. 

This article was first published by Bangkok Post.

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