• 04.12.12

Can We Make Enough Food To Eat Without Cutting Down All The Trees?

To make more farms, we usually need to cut down more forests. In Brazil, they’re trying to find a way to keep production up without destroying the rainforest.

Brazil has pulled off an environmental coup. Amazon deforestation is down 78% from its 2004 peak, while agricultural production continues to climb. How does a country that lost millions of hectares of forest every year to cattle ranchers and soy farmers turn things around in less than a decade?


Enforcement of conservation laws, smart agricultural policies, and environmentalist-led boycotts take much of the credit. Yet those are unlikely to be enough, according to a new analysis. The pressure to clear the world’s forests is mounting again, as commodity demand for food and biofuels picks up. Ultimately, say researchers, we need to decouple agricultural expansion with deforestation.

An initiative to do so is known as Roundtable-REDD. Scheduled to be launched with $4 million seed funding from Norway at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro Rio+20 in Brazil this June, it offers a carrot as well as a stick. The program will invest in agribusinesses around the world to adopt minimum environmental standards for major commodities such as sugar cane, soya, and palm oil offering the greatest impact to cut carbon emissions and conserve the world’s tropical forests. Landowners who adopt the standards (dealing with everything from workers’ rights to limiting deforestation) will be eligible to apply for subsidized government loans–worth some $1.7 billion during the current growing season, for soil improvement, intensification, or reclaiming degraded fields.

By making “sustainable” agricultural projects more attractive and competitive than their conventional agribusiness counterparts, the initiative are intended to save forests while feeding the world, particularly in tropical rainforest nations.

“From the perspective of global food security, the rapid expansion of agricultural production in tropical nations has become key to avoiding chronic and disruptive global food shortages,” writes (PDF) Dan Nepstad, the U.S. ecologist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the group coordinating Roundtable-REDD. The promise of this “tropical agricultural revolution” is greater economic prosperity for Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, and the emergence of coherent, practical policies to protect the environment, workers’ rights and the gobal food supply. Managed poorly, it will threaten food insecurity, speed the conversion of native forests into degraded agricultural lands, and worsen climate change.

Whether the scheme is actually adopted depends on productivity improvements, earning premiums for certified crops and competitive pressure from rising standards. The Roundtables are also intended to complement programs paying for carbon benefits from forest conservation known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). Although has made slow process in the last decade, it remains primarily as a government (rather than market) mechanism and is not reaching farmers on the forest frontier.

Not everyone is embracing the new approach. Jonathan Latham, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, writes that the new push is merely an attempt to “greenwash industrial commodity agriculture.” Latham argues that the program’s standards and enforcement will be insufficient, and the ultimate beneficiaries are agribusinesses.

There is little doubt, however, that the world must find more food to feed a population expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. That means we’ll need to approximately double food production by mid-century, estimates the UN Food and Agricultural Organization.


If we aren’t going to cut down our last forests, then we’ll need to find another way to grow.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.