Agriculture and Forestry: Allies or Antagonists?

Despite a longstanding antagonistic relationship, the agriculture and forestry sectors are coming together, prompted by a growing recognition that one needs the other to address successfully the intertwined challenges of climate change, poverty reduction and food security.

Representatives of the two sectors took important steps toward a new understanding through a roundtable discussion during Agriculture and Rural Development Day 2010, which was held on 4 December in parallel with the United Nations Climate Change Conference under way in Cancún, Mexico. Participants addressed the question of whether agricultural intensification might contribute to both food security as well as climate change mitigation, particularly in relation to new REDD+ schemes.

This seemed at first like a less than promising point of departure – more a shot across the bow than a warm embrace. After all, agriculture is one of the main drivers of deforestation. So, if farmers can produce more on less land sustainably, making agriculture more profitable, this could act as an enticement for them to burn even more forest for crop production. Yet, agriculturalists have maintained for decades that a more intensive agriculture actually reduces the pressure on forests.

Referring to this latter proposition as the Borlaug hypothesis, David Kaimowitz of the Ford Foundation offered a deliberately provocative and critical analysis, insisting that agricultural intensification in fact often comes at the expense of forests. Several panelists widened the debate, with Fahmuddin Agus of Indonesia’s Soil Research Institute citing examples of agriculture increasing and decreasing deforestation. Pauline Nantongo Kalunda of Ecotrust in Uganda offered insights into the challenges and possibilities of intensifying agriculture through carbon-friendly methods, like agroforestry.

In the end, the debate proved more cathartic than provocative. It questioned simplistic concepts like the agriculture versus forest dichotomy and the notion that food consumption is driven purely by increasing population and incomes. In their place, it left a more nuanced understanding of the varied country contexts in which the relationship between forests and a more intensive agriculture actually plays out.

The discussion also pointed to a number of quite reasonable measures for making the relationship work, such as providing secure tenure so that both forests and agriculture yield more benefits for rural people, promoting agricultural intensification on already cleared land, halting deforestation for extensive livestock grazing and reducing waste of food, fuel and fertilizer as a means to satisfy growing demand for agricultural products.