Deforestation. A land use crisis.

Kjell
Forestbase
Published in
6 min readFeb 25, 2022

--

Our climate crisis unfolds into three large sub crises. The carbon & GHG problem is well covered. Equally well covered is that our oceans are suffering from overfishing and pollution. What we hear the least about is the number one biggest crisis of the three. That is biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity Loss is currently our #1 biggest planetary threat

Climate change is typically seen as a carbon crisis, but (non-oceanic) biodiversity loss is mainly a land use crisis. In today’s economy, nature is usually seen as a burden. It occupies land that can be used for more ‘profitable’ or ‘useful’ activities. The typical target activity is agriculture with 90% of global deforestation to date directly linked to it. Converting land for agriculture is a painful experience for our planet. It was, and still is, the largest cause of GHG emissions, freshwater use and soil degradation. And still, we are not able to feed all hungry stomachs, with around a billion people left hungry.

From Land to Food

Our global food production is an inefficient and damaging system for our planet and even ourselves. There are a myriad of health conditions from the kinds of food we prioritize growing. How could we evolve towards a better setup?

First, the kinds of food we eat can change (consumption shift). Then what we grow can also change (production shifts towards less land-intensive agricultural products). Finally, we have to decide how we grow. Which agro-techniques will we use to balance nature and agriculture, while still having enough to feed everyone? Do we try to use the least amount of land to grow the maximum amount of food, and free up as much land as possible for undisturbed nature? This also means that we sacrifice all nature on the parts that we use. Or do we try to change agriculture in a way to support nature, leading to a hybrid agro-nature coexistence?

We are not the first ones to study this. Academics refer to this as the ‘land sharing’ versus ‘land sparing’ model. It can be simplified to this question. What is the best strategy for a 100 hectare farm, assuming both options will yield the exact same output? Sacrificing everything that lives on X hectares, to safeguard the other Y hectares (aka ‘Land sparing’)? Or using all the 100 hectares to an equal degree, with all nature being affected to a certain extent (‘sharing’ the land with nature)?

It would help to know X and Y. But those are hard numbers to come by. Below is an attempt to map how biodiversity evolves in relation to agricultural yield performance. The value of knowing which graph is the most accurate (A,B or C) and where exactly the sharp decline for biodiversity begins is worth a lot.

To put this question in more absolute terms, if we need 20 trillion calories per day, should these come from a smaller area with high performing agriculture and absence of nature? Or from a larger, lower performance human-nature coexistence? If Graph A were the right graph, there could be a case for a forest-agro sharing setup, much like the greenish yellow field mid-spectrum. If Graph C were the right one, then the decline in biodiversity would happen too fast to make hybrid setups worthwhile and we’d better have a mix of both spectrum ends (dark green + orange-pink)

One thing remains certain. Primary forests are a category in their own right, with biodiversity levels unparalleled and unrestorable. An estimated half of all species of plants and animals live in tropical rainforests, and once gone, they are gone forever. Add to this that the Amazon forest for example is not a singular ecosystem but a collection of very many small ecosystems. It’s easy to permanently destroy a few of those. We can replant a tree, but we cannot re-engineer an ecosystem.

Therefore our intermediary conclusion states that all primary forests should remain as untouched as possible. Even wild harvesting could lead to damage as soon as a quest for scale kicks off. For all the remaining land, secondary forests and agro, it is worthwhile to dig deeper into potential sharing cases and quantifying the spectrum above. There will most likely be regional differences in what is best.

Not all calories are created equally

Agricultural challenges cannot be limited to only a production issue. There are also important supply chain problems that need economic pressure to change. We use 28% of agricultural land to grow food that never gets eaten.

We funnel tremendous resources into producing animal products that only constitute 18% of our calories, but take 80% of farmland,,. This means that there is something wrong with our global food supply chain, which makes the case for agro-inspired deforestation even less justifiable.

Every day again, we all decide how much of the planet’s capacity we claim for ourselves..

On the ground level, individual farmers in the tropical belt rarely have a say in the kind of production they undertake. They are reliant on the system they are in, and will default to the least costly, and most beneficial use of land. Currently, agricultural conversion is the default, since farmers have 1) no way of making money from forests that doesn’t involve selling something from it and 2) in the global supply chain, they are paid the least for what they produce, and therefore, are dependent on farming to survive and can rarely break out of this dependence. This is especially true when we consider that 65% of poor working adults rely on agriculture as an income source.

For these farmers, making increasing profits would mean either producing more, or selling their goods at a higher price. Since food production is taken over by global commercial producers, there is stiff competition in the market for products, which drives down the price. Selling more expensively therefore will not be accepted by the market (except for specialized goods in certain niches). So, with a low price, the only way to make more money would be to just produce more, and this means, 1) cutting down more forests to cultivate more or 2) trying to produce more on the same hectare. Since cutting down a forest is far cheaper and more accessible than equipment and knowledge to improve production, scenario 1 is the big winner. On-the-ground incentives are therefore poorly related to a macro reality of global food overproduction.

The same principle works on a government level, where it gets magnified. A lot of countries rely on agriculture as their main poverty relieving scheme, and the shift to commercialized agriculture is seen as a ‘developmental’ step. Governments do this by subsidizing commercial agricultural equipment and agricultural companies, who are solely motivated by profit. These companies not only generate their profit through government subsidies and sale of products, but they are also able to buy an enormous amount of land for a very low price.

It’s easy to say on a macro level what is best. On the ground, the incentives are still lived by micro-economic agents, who may not care or who may not even have an overview of the macro context they are in. It is normal behavior for any business to put pressure on their own resources to get more output. Nationally, a pro-agro policy is often the only option for governments to employ the majority of their population. So, with global food prices high or low, on the ground this usually does not change the pressure on forests for more agro.

First close that leaky bucket

Before we rewild and replant, we need to make sure that those efforts make sense. What is the point of planting seedlings if irreplaceable wild nature keeps disappearing? It’s also cheaper to conserve than trying to replant. And no, we will not re-store in the exact sense. We expect reforested areas to score poorly on the 37 non-carbon ecosystem services. In terms of biodiversity, water, soil,.. they cannot remotely compete with pristine ecosystems in the first coming century. We expect this will reflect in the value of reforested areas compared to pristine ecosystems.

Sparing land for nature is the first step in biodiversity damage control, and only after this can we support the large-scale shift towards re-learning how to grow food in tandem with nature. That is why Forestbase is choosing its ‘land sparing’ conservation model for primary forests.

--

--