The Role Of Agriculture In Deforestation

By Nicole Gray

Accounting for 70-90% of deforestation, global agriculture is the biggest driver of forest loss. Over half of all deforestation globally serves to clear land for crops, and almost 40% to clear land for livestock [1]. Often, the rapidly growing global population and the corresponding concerns for food security are blamed. However, while the earth’s population is predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, we could feed the world without continually clearing more of our precious forests; and more importantly, we must [2]. When defining food security, the FAO breaks it down into four pillars: availability, access, utilisation, and stability [3]. Whilst deforestation might increase yields in the near-term, the knock-on effects that deforestation has on the global and local climate pose threats to the availability and stability of our food supply. In short, clearing land for agriculture can worsen the very problem we are trying to solve.

Livestock farming and animal feed

As mentioned in part one of this article series, it is not just countries that experience high rates of deforestation that are to blame. When we consider deforestation footprints, we see that often countries that import many goods produced overseas are driving forest loss. In 2017, for example, the EU was responsible for 16% of deforestation associated with international trade, totalling 116 million tonnes of CO2 [4]. Beef cattle farming is the largest driver of deforestation closely followed by soybean crops, over 70% of which are used in animal feed [5]. However, particularly in Europe the use of soy in animal feed is often an inefficient and unnecessary practice that drives excess deforestation [6],.

Firstly, whilst pigs and poultry do require animal feed, beef cattle and dairy cows can thrive on foraging alone. However, in attempts to boost yields and profits, farmers unnecessarily give cattle and cows animal feed such as soybean meal, for which additional cropland, and often deforestation, is required[6]. Secondly, 70% of the animal feed used in the EU is imported rather than grown on European land [6]. Soybean meal, for example, is largely imported from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay — where precious tropical forests are located. Only around 3% of soybean used for European animal feed is produced in the EU [3]. Moreover, the carbon footprint of this feed increases further due to the large distances it  is transported. So, why do European farmers continue to operate in this way?

EU Policy: Is the CAP to blame?

There are certain features of EU policy that disincentivise farmers from producing their own feed. The most recent version of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has three key aims: enhanced competitiveness, improved sustainability, and increased effectiveness [6]. It consists of two pillars: the first being market-support measures such as income support, and the second rural development support. Whilst the current CAP does not offer specific subsidies for imported feed, it indirectly encourages deforestation through it’s market-support measures — such as the CAP Price Support Scheme. Established in the 1980’s, this guarantees European farmers a minimum price for their crops, such that EU farmers recieve 2-3 times more for their crops than non-EU farmers [6]. As a result, the CAP encourages farmers to sell their crops, rather than using them to feed their livestock. When combined with the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which essentially grants farmers duty-free imports of grains for the livestock sector, it often becomes economically superior for European farmers to import cheap animal feed from abroad and sell the crops they grow, rather than using their own crops to feed their livestock [6]. So, although the CAP isn’t directly accelerating deforestation, within this wider policy context forest loss is facilitated and the key aims of the CAP, particularly improved sustainability, compromised. And whilst the CAP is employing greening measures to boost biodiversity within Europe as part of its rural development measures, one may question what use this is if it is contributing to biodiversity loss elsewhere in the world. 

The example of the CAP/GATT scenario highlights the need for holistic solutions that consider the global economic and ecological system, rather than approaches that compartmentalise sustainability issues and only drive positive change within specific geographies. Climate change doesn’t respect borders. And if we are to successfully tackle the problem of food security, a collaborative global approach must be taken. Further deforestation is simply not a solution to the food security challenges facing humanity today and even less in a growing climate crisis. Instead, we need to rethink our food system such that it benefits the health of people and of the planet. 

Look out for part three of this article series, which will consider possible solutions to reduce deforestation.

Reference List

[1] FAO (2021). COP26: Agricultural expansion drives almost 90 percent of global deforestation. FAO. Accessed on 18 February 2022. 
[2]  United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Data Booket. ST/ESA/SER. A/424.
[3]  FAO (2008). An introduction to the basic concepts of food security. FAO.
[4] WWF (2021). Stepping up? The continuing impact of EU consumption on nature worldwide. Executive Summary.  WWF.,%25 Accessed on 18 February 2022.
[5]  WWF (2018). What are the biggest drivers of tropical deforestation? WWF.. Issue: summer 2018.,1&text=Beef%20production%20is%20the%20top,and%20fourth%20biggest%20drivers. Accessed on 17 February 2022. 
[6] Gregory, M. & Polsterer, N. (2017). Agriculture and deforestation: The EU Common Agricultural Policy, soy and forest destruction. FERN.,of%20deforestation%20after%20cattle%20products Accessed on 10 February 2022.
Categories Food & Agriculture

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