This blog discusses how the need for food security places pressure on the world’s forests and examines the conflict between agriculture and conservation, before considering whether this dichotomy is false, and possible solutions to the challenging relationship between food security and forestry. 

Agriculture-driven deforestation, WWF

What’s the connection between food security and forestry?

Food security is the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. To meet the food needs of an ever-increasing global population the FAO predict that global agricultural outputs must expand by 60%, and continued urbanisation and rising incomes will also increase agricultural demand.

With these scenarios in mind, meeting the demand for productive agricultural land use while conserving biodiversity is a “global challenge.” This is particularly relevant to the world’s forests; agriculture directly drives around 80% of global deforestation.

Deforestation and degradation of woodland is a global threat in itself; it is responsible for around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the destruction of biodiverse and unique habitats, and the loss of indigenous livelihoods. Is increasing food security a win-lose situation when associated with the conservation of forestry?

Is it a win-lose situation?

Recently, agricultural growth and food production has generally been a story of success; grain production has increased faster than the global population and has played a part in reducing malnourishment. Amongst other factors, this has been driven by an increase in cultivated land. Currently, global crop yields are growing too slowly to meet present and future food needs, so it may be necessary to expand agricultural land to meet future food demands.

Furthermore, agricultural expansion can benefit national and individual economies. Brazil’s economy has benefited from agricultural conversion of the Amazon, tapping into global demands for beef, grain and soybeans. The Cerrado region in Brazil has seen a 37% increase in agricultural GDP per capita, and stands to flourish even more because of ideal crop-growing geographical conditions and relatively cheap land. Additionally, agricultural expansion can be used as tool for job creation1.

However, these aspects of food security through agricultural expansion are to the detriment of forestry conservation efforts. Primarily, the combined effects of deforestation and agricultural expansion release huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and endanger an essential climate regulating source. In addition, deforestation can be responsible for the destruction of forest’s diverse uses such as wood for fuel and construction, medicine and livelihood strategies. Also, it can be argued that agriculture-driven deforestation can harm food security– forests are a direct source for food for indigenous communities, and provide many ecosystem services for agriculture, including soil fertility, water, pollination and fodder for livestock.


Terraced agriculture on previously forested land, Dolakha, Nepal

A false dichotomy?

Holmgren argues that the portrayed dichotomy between food security and forest conservation is false and that an ‘either-or’ approach is nonsensical. Firstly, the framing of food security is misleading; food insecurity is not caused by insufficient agricultural production, but because of poverty, poor nutrition and limited access to food. Conversely, Stevenson suggests that enough food is produced to feed double the current population, but 60% is wasted. Rather than large-scale, forest guzzling commercial agricultural monocultures, the food security solution is aiding small-scale farmers (who make up 50% of those in poverty) and embracing the diversity and versatility of forests in the food production process.

Agroforestry has the potential to encompass these aspects in a comprehensive approach to agricultural production and forest conservation, whilst REDD+ can be a tool for forest conservation and provide economic alternatives to halt agricultural-driven deforestation.

Agroforestry: harnessing the agricultural benefits of trees

Agroforestry is when forested areas are integrated within systems of crop cultivation and livestock rearing. It is practiced by 1.2 billion people in the world and has many benefits which contribute to food security. Firstly, it can increase crop yields; trees can replenish soils with nutrients and act as a natural fertiliser, as well as increase livestock productivity. Van Vark illustrates this with the Faidherbia tree, which is integrated into maize crops in Malawi. When dormant, the tree sheds nitrogen-rich leaves which acts as fertiliser- studies show yields can increase by as much as 400%. Secondly, trees become a direct source of food, which can increase dietary diversity, and provide a resilient source food in erratic climates. Thirdly, it creates opportunities for economic diversification; food sourced from trees can command higher market prices, and products such as medicines from the bark can be sold to provide income for food. Furthermore, agroforestry is the driving force behind the ‘regreening’ of large swathes of Africa which has seen millions of hectares being restored with trees and shrubs, leading to an increase in biodiversity, food production, and a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

However agroforestry has not been without its critics- some argue that it isn’t appropriate in places where land tenure isn’t secure because of potential conflicts, adequate policy mechanisms aren’t in place, and benefits are not immediate but require long-term management.



Figure One: how agroforestry leads to food security and forest conservation


REDD+ encourages economic growth and conservation

REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is a policy mechanism for sustainable forest management, achieved through financially incentivising the conservation, protection and preservation of our forest’s rich environmental and social diversity. Whilst primarily a tool for conservation, Holgren argues that policies such as REDD+ are not included in food security debates as much as they should be, and that REDD+ goes further than just environmental conservation; REDD+ protects forestry as a source of income, and rewards conservation economically. The resulting income diversification would improve food security, as would the long-term climate adaptive capacity of communities, and the transparent and accountable governance which is associated with REDD+.

However, a large number of questions remain over REDD+’s suitability to dealing with food security issues. The policy would limit the availability of potential agricultural land, which would result in higher food and land costs. REDD+ could also curtail indigenous farming practices- shifting cultivation for subsistence purposes would be restricted and therefore removing a valuable source of food security.

What next?

It is naive to think that the forecast food and agricultural demands will not have an impact on the conservation of our forests. Whilst progress has been made, agriculture-driven deforestation will remain high and continue to damage forest conservation efforts. A synthesis of approaches will be needed to challenge this conflict; implementation of agroforestry and REDD+ will have varying degrees of success based on a number of factors. However, promising steps have been made- a realisation of the food benefits our forests bring is needed for greater food security and forest conservation.


1SOMASHEKAR, N. (2003). Development and Environmental Economics. Delhi, New Age International.