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Cattle Tops List of Commodities Behind Global Tree Cover Loss: WRI

This article was first published in The Forest Scribe, a sister website.
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A new analysis World Resources Institute (WRI) is showing that just seven agricultural commodities accounted for 26 percent of global tree cover loss from 2001 to 2015 with cattle taking the top position, causing losses more than four times its closest rival, palm oil.

in an article posted on its official website, WRI said that the analysis showed that the seven agricultural commodities replaced 71.9 million hectares of forest during that period, an area of land more than twice the size of Germany. The seven commodities analyzed represented 57 percent of agriculture-related tree cover loss from 2001-2015.

“Of the seven agricultural commodities, cattle pasture replaced the most forest by far — 45.1 million hectares, or an area of land the size of Sweden. Cattle are responsible for 16% of total tree cover loss.,” WRI said in the article.

Palm oil came in a distant second place, having converted 10.5 million hectares of forest land in the same period. Soy beans trailed not far behind in third place with 8.2 million hectares and Cocoa took fourth place with just 2.3 million hectares.

The conversion of forests to cattle pasture was more widely distributed across the globe, but hotspots existed in South and Central America, WRI said after pointing out that oil palm had replaced forests mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia while soy replaced forests mainly in South American countries like Brazil and Argentina.

Forest areas replaced by cattle worldwide peaked in 2005 at 3,601,000 hectares, reached a low of 2,415,000 hectares in 2013 before rising again to 2,603,000 hectares in 2015.

Plantation rubber converted 2.1 million hectares, followed by coffee with 1.9 million hectares and in seventh place was plantation wood fiber with 1.8 million hectares. WRI however, added that the analyses for rubber and wood fiber covered only a subset of countries because of data availability. 

“In recent years, soy and oil palm, the commodities most notorious for deforestation, replaced less forests than they have historically,” the report said.

It said that the rate at which oil palm plantations replaced forests dropped sharply after 2012. while the rate at which soy replaced forests dropped dramatically after a spike in 2004.

Total forest area replaced by oil palm globally, directly and indirectly peaked in 2009 at 1,318,480 hectares. In 2013 the figure went down to 585,860 hectares, then 334,630 hectares in 2014 and 218,990 hectares in 2015.

Other studies have attributed the slowing down of deforestation due to oil palm to drops in palm oil prices, national policies intended to curb forest clearing and corporate zero-deforestation commitments. Although the study period ends in 2015, Indonesia — the world’s top palm oil producers and the country accounting for two-thirds of forests replaced by oil palm — saw three consecutive years of reductions in primary forest loss from 2017-2019.

As with oil palm, the drop in soy’s deforestation rate coincided with lower prices, new national policies and deforestation-free supply chain initiatives. Since then, the rate at which soy replaced forests rebounded in Brazil’s Cerrado through 2012, but then declined slightly from 2013-2015.  Brazil has seen primary forest loss increasing since 2015 and soy has replaced the most forest.

Although data on plantation wood fiber and rubber were more limited than other commodities, the analysis also showed some recent declines in the rate at which such plantations replaced forests. These corresponded with a decline in prices for rubber and zero-deforestation commitments for most large wood fiber companies.

WRI said that it has not been seeing any noticeable changes in the rate at which cattle pasture replaced forests since 2001, despite a number of zero-deforestation commitments. 

It said deforestation from cattle was much harder to tackle from within supply chains, because pasture expansion happened in some places despite very low or even negative profit margins. In those cases, landholders may have converted forests to pasture as a form of land speculation, to secure land tenure, or for social and cultural reasons rather than for profit. 

Beef consumption also tended to be more domestic; only around a quarter of beef produced in Brazil is exported, making beef supply chains less responsive to international pressure around reducing deforestation.

Other agricultural commodities showing limited progress in reducing deforestation were cocoa and coffee, though detailed maps of cocoa and coffee were difficult to produce, as these commodities were often grown under canopy cover and were hard to see in satellite imagery.

WRI, however, cautioned that there was still a long way from fully understanding the complex dynamics between agricultural commodity production and deforestation. 

“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. We also aren’t able to account for the indirect impacts that commodities may have on each other and the world’s forests, such as when the expansion of one crop displaces another into forests or drives up land values,” WRI said.

More from Bhimanto Suwastoyo.
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