Handful of commodities drive forest clearances

Just seven agricultural commodities accounted for 26% of global tree cover loss from 2001 to 2015.

According to World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Review, cattle pasture replaced the most forest by far: 45.1 million hectares (16%), or an area of land the size of Sweden. Oil palm is second, replacing 10.5 million hectares, while soya accounted for 7.9 million hectares.

The majority of tree cover loss associated with the expansion of farms and plantations happens in the tropics, a “troubling trend” considering the vast carbon stocks and biodiversity held in rainforests, said WRI.

The Global Forest Review is a “living online report” providing the latest information on the state of the world’s forests. Unlike other reports that compile statistical data reported by governments, it draws primarily on global-scale geospatial data derived from analysis of satellite imagery.

The review includes the latest data on deforestation, targets trackers against commitments and the drivers of deforestation.

The good news from the recent data release is that soya and palm oil – commodities often linked to deforestation – replaced fewer forests than they have historically in the period assessed.

Forest loss in Brazil, a major producer of soya, has increased since 2015 though. Corporate zero deforestation commitments and national policies, together with price drops, have however all helped reduce the rate at which palm oil plantations have replaced forests in some countries.

Deforestation from cattle is much harder to tackle from within supply chains, WRI noted. Beef consumption tends to be domestic so supply chains are “less responsive” to international pressures around reducing deforestation.

Cocoa and coffee each replaced around two million hectares of forest, similar to plantation rubber and plantation wood fibre.

The seven commodities analysed represent 57% of agriculture-related tree cover loss from 2001-2015.

“We are still a long way from fully understanding the complex dynamics between agricultural commodity production and deforestation,” WRI wrote. “For example, the analysis can’t prove that land was deforested because of any one crop, only that the crop was planted in an area that was deforested.”

Detailed maps of where each commodity has replaced forests will better inform research, said WRI, as “we continue to tease out these complex interactions, and help us evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to slow commodity-driven deforestation”.

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