Debating Deforestation at Durban: Can We Feed the World’s Growing Population, Address Climate Change and Stop Deforestation?

New National Wildlife Federation Report Says “Yes”

12-05-2011 // Aislinn Maestas
Deforestation in Brazil

Reducing deforestation, addressing climate change and feeding the world’s growing population are three of the biggest challenges facing the planet. Addressing these problems equally, without sacrificing one for the other, is perhaps the greatest challenge facing negotiators this week at the United Nations international climate change summit in Durban. Researchers have offered conflicting advice. Although some studies have assumed that boosting agricultural yields automatically saves forests, other studies have argued that doing so often leads to more deforestation.

To help answer the question of how to produce 70 percent more food by 2050 without destroying the planet, National Wildlife Federation has released a new report titled The Food, Forest and Carbon Challenge (pdf).

“Boosting yields on existing agricultural land in developing countries is critical to feed people better and does save land globally, but such efforts alone can lead to even more forest loss, especially in tropical countries,” said Tim D. Searchinger, report author and Research Scholar and Lecturer in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. “To both feed people and save forests, agricultural improvements and forest protection efforts must go hand in hand.”

Unlike other analyses of the problem, the report does not incorporate behavioral changes, such as shifting Americans’ diets away from meat and dairy, into its list of recommendations. It is also the first report to look beyond forests to include wetlands, savannas and grasslands as places threatened by land conversion for agricultural use.

In a perfect world we would all become vegetarians, who only buy locally grown, organic food,” said Barbara Bramble, senior advisor for National Wildlife Federation’s International Climate and Energy Program. “But the reality is we cannot expect to see a ground up solution to this Rubik’s cube. The world’s policy makers are the ones who will determine whether or not we can find a sustainable solution to these inter-locking problems in time.”

The report identifies a new concept that explains the reason that agriculture yield increases seem to accelerate deforestation in certain regions, contrary to the expectations of economic theory – it’s called ‘local versus global land-sparing’. In addition, the report clarifies that agricultural yield gains are necessary but not sufficient to reduce deforestation and other conversions of natural habitats, let alone to provide acceptable levels of food supplies. It explores several fruitful directions for policymakers, private companies and multi-stakeholder “commodity roundtables,” that if implemented today, would help the world address climate and food challenges in the next 50 years:

  • Policies should encourage more efficient output from all land, whether the primary output is carbon sequestration, food, fiber or biological diversity. From a carbon perspective, policies should encourage land use change only when that change is the most likely way to optimize land capacity.
  • Policymakers should develop more realistic goals for biofuels and only promote them where they use wastes or are likely to produce biomass at high rates on currently unproductive land.
  • Private food companies and “sustainable commodity roundtables” should not only discourage the use of high carbon and biologically diverse lands, but should also encourage that agriculture expand only where it can achieve a high ratio of output to carbon loss. They should also encourage steady improvement in the outputs from existing agricultural lands.
  • Efforts towards productivity gains should focus on boosting yields of staple foods for domestic production, on boosting production by existing farmers on existing farmland, and on boosting production if possible away from forest frontiers. Export agriculture in the tropics should be focused on tropical crops, preferably with high labor demands and high revenues per hectare.

The study cites Brazil as a possible model, which has both increased yields and slowed deforestation, in recent years. Brazil “is demonstrating enormous capacity to double or even triple forage production and livestock yield on its pastures”, concludes the study, and thus already cleared land “can serve as the world’s growing food basket.”

Forests and other natural habitats are important natural sinks for carbon, the leading greenhouse gas,” said Nathalie Walker, manager for National Wildlife Federation’s Tropical Forests, Agriculture and Climate project. “Meeting the growing demand for food by reducing these sinks will over time make successful agriculture that much more difficult, because of accelerating climate change. There are ways to optimize production of both food and carbon storage – the two are not mutually exclusive.”

To download the full report and to learn more about NWF’s work on deforestation, visit