ROME, July 19: Agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation globally fueled by a growing demand for food, yet it is possible to feed the world without cutting forests, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Monday.
Most forest loss occurs in the world's tropical regions, which lost 7 million hectares of forest a year between 2000 and 2010, while gaining 6 million hectares per year in agricultural land, FAO said in a report.
Some countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have managed to change this pattern by improving land rights, boosting agricultural production and protecting forests, FAO said.
"There has always been the thinking that in order to produce more food to feed the growing population you need to clear more land for agriculture," said Eva Muller, director of the Forestry Policy and Resources Division at FAO.
"(But) it is possible (to produce more food without cutting forests)," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 the world will need to feed a population of more than 9 billion, up from 7.4 billion today. Yet 80 percent of arable land is already in use globally.
Chile, Vietnam, Gambia and Ghana were among more than 20 countries that in the past two decades improved their food security by increasing agricultural production, while maintaining or increasing forest cover, FAO said.
One of the key factors, Muller said, was investment in agriculture to boost production.
"The investment in agriculture was mainly to increase agriculture productivity through intensification rather than in clearing new land for agriculture," she said.
Better land planning and improved land rights, which contribute to better protection of forests, and improved coordination between forest and agriculture policies, were also important, she said.
"Secure and clear land tenure is key because if people have the right to land they will treat the land differently than if they don't," Muller said.
Forests are important for agriculture because they protect soil against erosion, conserve water and reduce flood risk, FAO said.
"In the past agriculture was focused on producing food, and forestry was focusing on something else, they were never talking to each other so sometimes their policies ended up being even contradictive," Muller said.
"If you're really looking at sustainable development, and this is what everybody wants, we need the forests because they are essential for regulating water flows, storing carbon and preserving soils," Muller said.
"Without forests you will not have those benefits any more and that will in a longer term create even more problems."