Agriculture is still the main cause of deforestation around the world, and it is necessary to promote more positive interactions between agriculture and the forests to create sustainable agricultural systems and improve food security.
This is the key message of the report “The state of the world’s forests” (SOFO), presented today at the start of the 23rd session of the Committee on Forests (COFO) at the FAO.
Forests play a key role in sustainable agricultural development through various channels, including the water cycle, carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and natural control of pests, as well as influencing the local climate and protecting the habitat of pollinators and other species.
The Director-General of FAO, Jose Graziano da Silva, said that “the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, recognize that we cannot address separately power supply and the management of natural resources. Both agreements require a coherent and integrated approach to sustainability in all agricultural sectors and food systems. In this sense, forests and forestry play a key role.”
“The key message of the SOFO,” he added, “is clear: it is not necessary to cut down forests to produce more food.”
Agriculture represents the main source of forest conversion to other uses. According to the latest SOFO report, in tropical and subtropical areas large-scale commercial agriculture and local subsistence agriculture are responsible for about 40% and 33% of the conversion of forests, respectively. The remaining 27% is due to urban growth, the expansion of infrastructure, and mining.
On the other hand, the report underlines how forests meet many vital ecological functions that benefit agriculture and drive food production.
“Food security can be achieved through agricultural intensification and other measures such as social protection, more than through the expansion of agricultural areas at the expense of forests,” said Eva Muller, Director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division of the FAO.
“What we need is a better intersectoral coordination of policies in the field of agriculture, forestry, food, use of land, better planning of this use, effective legal frameworks, and a greater participation of communities and small local owners,” she added.
“Governments,” Muller pointed out, “must provide local communities not only secure tenure of land, but also secure tenure of forests. Farmers are the ones that best know how to manage their own resources, but often lack the legal instruments to do so.”
Improving food security, while slowing down deforestation
Well-managed forests have enormous potential to promote food security. In addition to their vital ecological contributions, forests contribute to rural livelihoods and poverty alleviation through income generated from the production of forest goods and environmental services.
Nearly 2,400 million people depend on firewood to cook and to sterilize water. The food in the forest provides proteins, minerals, and vitamins to the rural diet and can also serve as a security network in periods of food shortages.
According to SOFO, over 20 countries have been successful since 1990 in improving their national levels of food security and at the same time, maintaining or increasing forest cover, showing that it is not necessary to cut down forests to produce more food.
Twelve of these countries increased their forest cover by more than 10%: Algeria, Chile, China, Dominican Republic, Gambia, Islamic Republic of Iran, Morocco, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Uruguay, and Vietnam.
All of these achievements were based on a similar set of tools: effective framework, secure land tenure, measures for regulating the use of the land, incentives for policy changes in sustainable agriculture and forestry, adequate funding, and a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of Governments and local communities.
In Costa Rica, deforestation reached its maximum in the 1980s, mainly due to the conversion of forest cover into pastures. Since then, the country has invested in measures to fight deforestation largely due to forestry law, which now prohibits the change of the use of natural forests, and its system of payments for environmental services (PES), which offers farmers incentives to plant trees and supports the conservation of the forest. As a result, forest cover has increased to almost 54% of total land area in the country in 2015.