The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that the world will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to realise global food security, due to a growing world population, shifting dietary preferences, and the expanding use of crops for biofuel and other industrial purposes. This reality threatens the world’s forests, as agricultural expansion is currently the leading cause of deforestation worldwide. Half of the native forests that once covered the planet are gone, and about 13 million additional hectares disappear each year. At current rates of deforestation, nearly all unmanaged forests may be gone by 2100.
But just as humanity needs food security, humanity also needs the world’s remaining forests. One billion of the world’s poorest depend on forests for their daily needs for food, water and materials for shelter. Forests and the food derived from them also act as important safety nets when the poor and vulnerable face additional hardships, whether from natural disasters, war, drought or crop failures.
Forests are critically important to the world’s poor yet we all depend on forests for the ‘ecosystem services’ they provide. Native forests underpin and support agricultural production by providing habitat for pollinators and predators of agricultural pests, improving soil fertility, providing erosion and flood control and protecting water supplies. Forests also support agricultural production by providing climate regulatory services. Agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to climactic changes, and forests help mitigate anthropogenic climate change by capturing and storing carbon.
On the other hand, forests become potent carbon emissions sources when they are burned or destroyed. Deforestation currently accounts for more annual emissions than the entire global transportation sector. Without keeping the world’s remaining forests intact, we have no chance of limiting climate change to a 2 °C average increase (relative to pre-industrial levels), the threshold thought by scientists to be the maximum warming allowable to avoid catastrophic global consequences, including detrimental impacts on crop yields.
Given that humanity needs both food security and forests, how do we address these two seemingly conflicting needs? A first step is to recognise that the dichotomy between conserving forests and achieving food security is a false one. Achieving food security is not just a matter of producing more food via agricultural expansion. Instead, achieving food security largely depends on addressing both poverty and the poor’s ability to access and utilise the right types of food.
To achieve global food security in 2050 and beyond, we need integrated policies that recognise that poverty, food security, climate change and forest conservation are all inextricably linked. By acknowledging the contributions of forests to agriculture development and food security, we can better conserve forests while creating more effective agricultural policies. In so doing, we can also better meet global development and climate change mitigation needs. At stake is the possibility for a more humane and hospitable world.