Food security and forest conservation in a globalized world PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Albert Norström   
Thursday, 16 June 2011 19:11

An excellent paper in PNAS by Eric Lambin and Patrick Meyfroidt - "Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity" - looks at the effects economic globalization could have in dealing with the trade-offs between the need for increased food production (9 billion mouths to feed by 2050) and the conservation of forest ecosystems and their associated ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Providing food security for the worlds expanding population, projected to hit 9 billion by 2050, is one of the biggest challenges we face today. A major consequence of producing more food is that, in the past, it has often required transforming forests into crop and pastoral land (for example, during the past 20 years tropical forests have been the primary source of new farm land). So on the one hand there is a need for food security, and on the other hand a need to halt the loss of forest related ecosystem services (carbon storage, reliable rainfall) and biodiversity. All in a context of less and less non-forest land available for agricultural development (indeed, the authors make the projection that the current land reserve could be exhausted by 2050)!


Sugarcane cultivated in Brazil for ethanol fuel production. A few remaining rainforest trees are seen in the background. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Desagher/Azote

The two common strategies commonly proposed to tackle these unwanted trade-offs are i) to protect valuable forests from being used for agriculture (i.e conservation areas and protected parks), and ii) to intensify agriculture so that less land is required to produce food. While the implementation of such policies are mostly conducted at the national level, their future success and failure will be strongly dependent on the dynamics of economic globalization and trade-flows (bear in mind that the international trade in food commodities has increased more than fivefold from 1961 to 2001).

As the authors write:

"The acceleration of economic globalization in tandem with a looming scarcity of productive land globally may render the above strategies (conservation and intensification) less effective in promoting land uses that enhance food production while preserving ecosystems, especially tropical forests."

So how do these dynamics play out in a globalized context? The authors discuss 4 potential ways globalization can really amplify or dampen trade-offs between land-use for food production and forest conservation.

Displacement: In essence this means exporting crop production to another country. For example, country A (often a rich nation) seeks to protect its forests from future agricultural development, and increases its food imports to compensate for this. These imports come from neighboring country B, (often a poor, developing nation) which sees a loss of its forests to make way for farm land. In Switzerland, for instance, the land required to grow its imported food is one and a half times more than the country’s currently cultivated land. In Sweden, in 1994, 35% of food consumption was satisfied by food grown in agricultural areas outside the country!

Rebound: In essence this describes the process where as a new technology becomes cheaper, the demand for it increases as it becomes cost effective for more industries. Cheap gasoline, for example, has led to a proliferation of gas-powered devices (think leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and so on). In cases where agricultural intensification has involved cash crops for rapidly expanding global markets it has led to an expansion of cropland rather than a reduction. Lambin and Meyfroidt point to soybeans in Brazil and oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia as examples. In other cases that involved crops to be consumed locally, then intensification has led to cropland reduction.

Cascade effects: Here the paper gets really interesting. Cascade effects are a chain of complex events that are triggered by a change in the system, somewhere. A case in point could be the sequence of events leading to deforestation in the Amazon. The direct cause of Amazon deforestation is pasture (land grazed by cattle and other grazing livestock) expansion. However, an indirect cause of pasture expansion into the Amazon is the spread of soybean production in other areas. In other words, soybean farmers displace pastoralists and force them out to exploit cheaper land near the rainforest frontier.

Remittances: This is the last side-effect of globalization discussed, and one is viewed under positive light. A consequence of a globalized world is outmigration from rural areas to, sometimes, other richer countries. Foreign workers often send money back to family members still in their home country, and the added influx of cash reduces the need for farmland in that country. With supplemented incomes, people can afford to purchase more food as opposed to growing all of it (but then again, this food needs to be grown somewhere).

On a positive note, the authors show that some countries can simultaneously increase both food production and forest cover. They analyze several examples of these success stories – China, Vietnam, India, Bhutan, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Chile – where combinations of policy measures to incentivize agricultural intensification while regulating land-use zones have led to synergies (and not trade-offs) between increases in food production and the protection of forests. This is good news.

Trends in land used for agriculture (straight lines) and forest area (dotted lines) between 1960-2010 in (from left-right) China, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Vietnam.

But as Lambin and Meyfroidt point out every single one of these success stories has entailed greater food imports (remember, the displacement effect discussed above) and, by corollary, exporting of land uses and associated emissions to other countries. For example:

"China increased its imports of soybean from Brazil, with possible indirect effects on deforestation. China also out-sourced part of its land use through large-scale land transactions in Africa."

Remittances helped the situation in El Salvador

"in El Salvador, remittances sent by migrants living abroad facilitated forest recovery".

They warn in their discussion:

"In a more interconnected world, agricultural intensification may cause more rather than less cropland expansion. Land use regulations to protect natural ecosystems may merely displace land use elsewhere by increasing imports. Mitigating climate change by mandating the use of biofuels in one place may increase global greenhouse gas emis- sions due to indirect land use changes in remote locations. "

This is important  research in many ways. The expansion of the human dimension into the Anthropocene has resulted in an interconnected global society with new cross-scale interactions connecting people and places in new ways. Human societies are often no longer fundamentally dependent on local ecosystem services. Therefore there is a need to understand how local social-ecological systems are shaped by their connections to other places. The national "success stories" discussed by the authors raise some hope. They stress that a combination of smart forest conservation schemes, regulations on trade and consumption and new forms of global governance systems that link trade with environmental degradation can minimize the unwanted trade-offs between increased food production and forest conservation.

As the authors wrap up:

"In short, yes, “it’s globalization, stupid,” but its effects on land use can be harnessed if land use is understood as being part of open and complex human-environment systems dominated by long distance flows of commodities, capital, and people. The possibility of a global land use transition with a concomitant increase in agricultural production and forest area remains to be investigated."

One surprise, however, is that no mention is made to recent estimates that moves by small-scale farmers in developing countries to ecological agriculture (agroecology) can double food production within 10 years in the poorest regions of the world. Agroecology has the huge benefits of creating synergies, more than trade-offs, in the sense that it helps mitigate climate change and alleviates rural poverty.





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