Tropical forest – equivalent in land area to Alaska – was cut down to make way for farmland in the last 20 years of the 20th century, according to a recent study funded by NASA.
Studying UN Landsat satellite data, the research indicates that over half of the forest destroyed for agriculture – over 600 million hectares in all – was previously fully intact. With the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation predicting that global food production may need to double by 2050, this new evidence highlights the dilemma between food to feed the world’s rapidly growing population and forests needed to control the same population’s still rising GHG (Green House Gas) emissions.
The lead researcher – Dr. Holly Gibbs – claims that, annually: “every million acres of forest that is cut releases the same amount of carbon into the atmosphere as 40 million cars.”
Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia are responsible for much of the expansion in agricultural land – largely for sugar cane, palm oil and soy production. However, human demand for meat – a relatively inefficient food product in terms of land area per unit of protein and nutritional value – is also rising fast, particularly in the two most populous nations, India and China. Furthermore, the new biofuels market is adding significant pressure on the world’s remaining tropical forests.
“There’s some good news from this study,” commented Matthew Owen, Director of Cool Earth. “For instance, the main cause of deforestation is large agri-business which, in theory, is easy to target with better techniques and improved yields on existing cleared land.”
It’s also probably fair to assume that large businesses will be able to respond faster and more positively than subsistence farmers or small-scale cash-croppers who represent generally poor and hungry families.
According to Gibbs:
“the good news is that pressure from consumer groups and non-governmental organisations combined with international climate agreements could provide a real opportunity to shift the tide in favour of forest conservation rather than farmland expansion.”