Agriculture and deforestation

Soybean harvest
We need to fundamentally overhaul our agriculture and forestry practices.


We must change the way we manage land, a recent report by the world’s leading climate scientists at the IPCC leaves no doubt. 

Agriculture, the very industry that sustains us, also threatens our continued existence as a species. This sector produces at least 23 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (second only to the energy sector), according to the report.

To solve the climate crisis it is not enough to transform industrial sectors like energy and manufacturing - we need a fundamental change in agriculture and forestry practices.

Global ramifications 

The devastating fires in the Amazon that captured the world’s attention in August illustrate how land misuse has global ramifications. These fires, set to clear land for crops, sent vast swaths of the Amazon up in smoke - not only harming local people and wildlife, but destroying critical carbon sinks that the world needs to help slow climate change.

It’s an all-too-common pattern seen across the tropics: to make room for crops, forests come down. In fact, according to recent satellite data in 2019, clearing land for agriculture causes rainforest deforestation at the rate of forty football pitches a minute. 

Meanwhile the farmers working to meet the ever-increasing global demand for products like coffee, tea, and cocoa, struggleto feed their own families.

But the second and equally important message of the IPCC report is this: solutions exist. There are ways to produce food that protect forests, reduce emissions, and provide co-benefits for livelihoods, biodiversity, and local climatic conditions.

How do these two main takeaways - that countries must change how food is produced, and that there are workable solutions - translate into actions? As governments, policy makers and legislators work to address the grand challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2030 while maintaining a habitable and biodiversity-rich planet, we must seek strategies tailored to different commodities and contexts.

Production and certification 

Recognizing the role that commodity production—palm oil, soy, timber, and beef, but also cocoa and coffee - plays in deforestation, companies and producers must identify and eliminate deforestation from supply chains. That means working with companies and farmers to adopt better practices and increase productivity, thus preventing further deforestation. 

Certification offers just that, a system whereby producers are encouraged to use more sustainable methods. It may not be a perfect system but it includes various key tools, such as farmer training, access to digital tools, online resources, benchmarking and climate smart agricultural advice; it also allows products to be traced back to origin, helping ensure that crops are not grown on recently deforested land. Certification also integrates social safeguards with environmental objectives.

Global food producers, corporates and multinationals purchasing key commodities must commit to stop deforestation with fixed and accountable targets. Companies that have made no-deforestation commitments must be pressured to adhere to global standards and penalized if they do not comply.

In the past ten years, multiple commitments to drive deforestation out of the global supply chain by 2020 have been made by the Consumer Goods Forum, the New York Declaration on Forests in 2014, as well as many individual companies. But there has been remarkably little progress on the ground.

To change this, a group of international environmental NGOs has recently joined forces to launch the Accountability Framework, providing necessary guidance to companies to make rigorous commitments—and to keep them. 

Land rights 

Deforestation has long been fueled by poor governance. This manifests as illegal activity, corruption, unclear or inequitable land tenure, and conflicting authority over forest resources particularly evident now in the Amazon crisis where indigenous land custodians are having their land rights eroded.

By contrast, solidifying or re-instating forest ownership by legitimate rights holders, including local and indigenous communities, can support forest conservation, reduce conflict, and enhance equitable social development.

With clear rights, communities are better able to manage standing forests as economic assets and realize multiple benefits from activities such as sustainable logging, sale of non-timber forest products (like honey, spices, and nuts), and payment for ecosystem services, such as watershed protection.

The EU has rightly identified good governance partnerships with producer countries’ governments as a priority in its action plan on deforestation

Powerful solution 

Finally, we need to transform the way food is produced on existing farms. Agroforestry, the practice of growing trees with crops, is a solution particularly relevant for multi-year tropical crops like coffee, cocoa, and tea.

Importantly, and also recognized by the IPCC report, agroforestry can work to address many climate change challenges: mitigation, adaptation, reducing desertification and land degradation, and food security. 

Coffee, for example, requires, to thrive, a temperature range from 15–30 deg C, rainfall averages between 1,500 to 2,500 mm per year, and relative humidity in the 70–90 percent range. In agroforestry systems, shade trees have been shown to reduce temperatures on the coffee plants by up to 4-6 degrees, thereby limiting the effect of climate change on the plant.

Shade trees can increase the water and nutrient holding-potential of the soil, and their fallen leaves create organic matter in the soil. When fruit or timber trees are used, these can provide additional income to farmers that can complement the income from the cash crop.

Agroforestry is a powerful solution, even though it is not appropriate everywhere. And there are a lot of examples where it is benefitting the landscape compared to traditional forms of agriculture for example, in cocoa-growing Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana where shade trees are now promoted.

Marching orders

It is important to remember that the IPCC is not only a group of scientists. It is an intergovernmental panel and its reports are approved by 195 governments. The recommendations in its reports are, in essence, internationally agreed-upon marching orders. And the order is clear: it is time to take action. 

We have the solutions at hand and little time left to enact them.

This Author 

Henriette Walz is the global theme lead for deforestation at the Rainforest Alliance.