Over 90% of tropical deforestation is caused by agriculture

A study performed by some of the world’s leading experts suggests that between 90 and 99% of tropical deforestation is directly or indirectly caused by agriculture.

It was previously estimated that agriculture was attributable to around 80% of tropical deforestation, but this latest review of the best available data reveals that agriculture’s impact is staggeringly higher. Moreover, only one-half to thirds of this agriculture results in the expansion of agricultural production on the deforested land.

The review outlines that a step-change approach will be essential and effective measures critical to address the underlying and indirect roles of agriculture.

Florence Pendrill, the lead author of the study at the Chalmers University of Technology, commented: “Our review makes clear that between 90 and 99% of all deforestation in the tropics is driven directly or indirectly by agriculture. But what surprised us was that a comparatively smaller share of the deforestation – between 45 and 65% – results in the expansion of actual agricultural production on the deforested land. This finding is of profound importance for designing effective measures to reduce deforestation and promote sustainable rural development.”

The true scale of tropical deforestation

Agriculture has been known as a driver of tropical deforestation for many years; however, estimations of its extent varied considerably. Previous estimates on how much forest is converted into agricultural land across the tropics ranged from 4.3 to 9.6 million hectares per year between 2011 and 2015. The new research suggests it is actually between 6.4 to 8.8 million hectares per year.

Professor Patrick Meyfroidt from UCLouvain said: “A big piece of the puzzle is just how much deforestation is for nothing. While agriculture is the ultimate driver, forests and other ecosystems are often cleared for land speculation that never materialised, projects that were abandoned or ill-conceived, land that proved unsuitable for cultivation, as well as due to fires that spread into forests neighbouring cleared areas.”

The study outlines that various commodities are responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation linked to actively producing agricultural land. More than 50% is attributed to pasture, soy, and palm oil alone. The research also calls out the failings of sector-specific initiatives that are not addressing the indirect impacts.

Toby Gardner of the Stockholm Environment Institute and Director of the supply chain transparency initiative, Trase, commented: “Sector-specific initiatives to combat tropical deforestation can be invaluable, and new measures to prohibit imports of commodities linked to deforestation in consumer markets, such as those under negotiation in the EU, UK and US represent a major step forward from largely voluntary efforts to combat deforestation to date.

“But as our study shows, strengthening forest and land-use governance in producer countries has to be the ultimate goal of any policy response. Supply chain and demand-side measures must be designed in a way that also tackles the underlying and indirect ways in which agriculture is linked to deforestation. They need to drive improvements in sustainable rural development. Otherwise, we can expect to see deforestation rates remaining stubbornly high in many places.”

Championing sustainable agriculture

The study recommends that supply chain interventions are essential to driving partnerships between producer and consumer markets and governments and must include robust incentives to make sustainable agriculture economically attractive.

They must also deter further conversion of native vegetation and support vulnerable smallholder farmers. The researchers explained that this should include a stronger focus on domestic markets, which are usually significant drivers of commodities like beef. The study also highlights three vital gaps where a stronger evidence base is required to better target efforts to combat tropical deforestation.

Professor Martin Persson of the Chalmers University of Technology explained: “The first is that without a globally and temporally consistent data product on tropical deforestation, we cannot be confident about overall trends in conversion. The second is that except for oil palm and soy, we lack data on the coverage and expansion of specific commodities to know which are more important, with our understanding of global pasture and grazing lands being especially dire. The third is that we know comparatively very little indeed about tropical dry forests and forests in Africa.

“What is most worrying, given the urgency of the crisis, is that each of these evidence gaps poses significant barriers to our ability to drive down tropical deforestation in the most effective way – by knowing where the problems are concentrated and understanding the success of efforts to date.”

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