Forest-friendly farming and supply chains gain momentum
Some 38 percent of the Earth’s unfrozen land is now dedicated to farming, and with the world’s population expected to climb by half a billion to 8.5 billion in 2030, the pressure to increase global food output mounts every year.
That expansion has already taken a heavy toll on the world’s forests, which are invaluable havens for much of the world’s biodiversity and critical carbon sinks. While the pace of global deforestation slowed in 2021, 7 million hectares of tree cover – an area larger than Ireland – was lost during the year, largely due to commercial farming.
Tropical forests are vanishing at a particularly alarming rate. According to the World Resources Institute, 3 to 4 million hectares of primary tropical forest have disappeared every year for the past two decades, a pace that showed no sign of slowing even in the face of COVID-19 lockdowns.
And yet forests provide essential services to farmers: insects and bats pollinate crops, trees and shrubs prevent and reverse land degradation, and tree roots forestall soil erosion. More than 1.5 billion people depend on forests for lives and livelihoods.
Agriculture is also vital to the world’s well-being – and not just because of the demand for food. While it accounts for just 3 percent of global gross domestic product, farming powers as much as 25 percent of the economies of some of the world’s poorest countries and provides work for 884 million people.
Striking a sustainable balance between forests and farming can seem intractable. But recent efforts to do just this across Latin America, Africa, and Asia are showing that it is possible to feed the world without destroying nature.
The Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) Impact Program is a GEF-funded effort to reduce deforestation and biodiversity loss caused by agricultural commodities in 27 countries without destroying the livelihoods of farming and forest-dependent communities.
A seven-year, $345 million drive to make food production more forest-friendly, efficient, and equitable, FOLUR focuses on eight of the value chains that lead to significant forest loss: cocoa, coffee, corn, livestock, palm oil, rice, soy, wheat.
Of these, livestock production is the most damaging, led by cattle-rearing. The beef industry is responsible for twice as much tropical forest conversion as soy, palm oil, and timber products combined.
FOLUR is working across supply chains to foster sustainability by opening new forums for dialogue, pushing for nature to be central to land use planning, helping to shape national policies and incentives that promote climate-smart production, and encouraging the replication of successful steps in other places facing similar strains.
These efforts also linked to the Good Growth Partnership (GGP), a GEF-funded global platform that unites stakeholders of all stripes and sizes – from smallholder farmers to multinational corporations – behind the goal of achieving lasting and transformative change in the supply chains of key commodities.
Collaboration between environmental bodies and the private sector has proven to be a powerful way to bolster transparency and innovation, build consensus, and attract investment for sustainable practices.
The GGP unites the governments of major beef producers Brazil and Paraguay with those of prominent palm oil-growing nations Indonesia and Liberia, as well as civil society and major corporate players, behind the goal of finding ways to do business that do good, not harm, to forests and the global environment.
Growing global demand for palm oil, found in everything from peanut butter to lipstick, has led to the razing of thousands of hectares of biodiversity-rich forests across the developing world and pushed endangered species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino to the brink of extinction.
Indonesia is the world’s top exporter of palm oil. The perennially popular vegetable oil generates 4.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and is a source of income for 3 million of its people. Expanding production of the crop, however, comes at the expense of millions of hectares of the country’s old growth forests and peatlands.
Recent sustainability pledges appear to have helped the country achieve a rapid turnaround. A report from supply chain mapping initiative Trase Insights, palm oil-linked deforestation from 2018-2020 fell to just 18% of its 2008-2012 peak. Another cause for optimism? This drop came during continued growth in output.
Liberia’s industry is comparatively young, but it has already taken over huge swathes of the country’s land with enormous consequences for the old growth forests and limited rewards for the farmers who have converted their lands to oil palm growing. Commitment by the government toward deforestation-free oil palm is helping to shape policies and advance innovative practices that benefit smallholder farmers.
Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter and its output has continued to surge in the face of growing worries about risks to the Amazon rainforest – and hence the entire world – from land conversion. Paraguay, another top 10 cattle-raising nation, is also facing growing pressure to embrace sustainability. Some 14 million hectares of dry tropical forest in the biodiversity-rich Chaco region, a deforestation hotspot in recent decades, were converted into pasture or fields for fodder between 1985 and 2013.
The Good Growth Partnership platform is helping these countries to topple obstacles to forest-friendly farming, such as laws that ignore or even incentivize deforestation, underfunding of monitoring and policing, and lacking education for farmers, business leaders, and government officials in the unparalleled value of forests. These efforts have also opened the door to new FOLUR projects building on the foundations laid in Brazil, Indonesia, Liberia, and elsewhere. Together, these initiatives are helping to make the sustainable production of food the norm – not the exception – around the world.