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Agriculture’s connection with Deforestation

Written by: Gargi Sarma, Industry Analyst @ Global Launch Base

Despite the importance of forests, the pace of forest loss has been steadily increasing over the last three to five decades. According to the Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) 2020, there has been a net loss of 178 million hectares of forest since 1990, with serious consequences for ecosystem services, biodiversity protection, and climate change.

Although deforestation might provide additional benefits to the local community in the short term, this can have severe implications to humankind and also to the local community due to the irreversible damage caused to the local environment. Thus, on the path of maintaining the potential of forests for development, what we forget is that planting a tree is simple but reversing deforestation is almost impossible.

Agriculture occupies over 37% of world land (FAOSTAT 2020), whereas forests occupy 31% of global land (FAO 2020).

There are several connections and interactions between these two main land uses. We have known that the forestry sector's income has mostly come from the extraction of timber and non-timber forest products, as well as the conversion of land to other uses such as cow grazing or crop cultivation. Hence, deforestation is driven by a variety of factors; small and large-scale farmers both contribute to land conversion through their agricultural operations, but for different reasons. In order to address the problem of deforestation, we should understand the below mentioned various agents which are driving deforestation.

Driving factors of deforestation (FAO reports):

  1. Demographic factors: Population growth, urbanization and migration.

  2. Economic factors: Changes in relative prices, economic structures, shift in demand of commodities, infrastructure development.

  3. Technological factors: Technological progress to increase agricultural productivity.

  4. Policy & institutional factors: Macro-economic policies, tenure rights, corruption, access to loans, education.

  5. Cultural factors: Public and individual attitudes and values, lack of concern about forests, rent-seeking, frontier mentality.

Agriculture as a driving force:

Deforestation is mostly caused by the conversion of forest areas to agricultural use. According to estimates, commercial agriculture is responsible for 40% of deforestation in tropical and subtropical nations, while subsistence agriculture is responsible for 33% (Hosonuma et al., 2012). The very industry of agriculture that sustains us also threatens our existence due to the everyday increase in demand for food production. When we look into India, agriculture is the main source of income for the majority of the population which includes small-scale farmers in large numbers. Though large-scale farmers are also contributing to Indian deforestation, small-scale farmers are observed to be a major contributor of deforestation due to the following reasons:

  • Food insecurity is caused by the low productivity of previously farmed land which forces farmers to open up new territory.

  • Due to a lack of other fuel sources, high reliance on wood and/or charcoal is necessary, and when demand surpasses the limits of sustainable production, forest degradation occurs.

  • People have little choice but to plough up additional farmland in wooded regions due to a lack of alternative income sources.

With the coexisting population, pressure in transition to market-oriented livelihood promotes the expansion of agricultural land and ultimately leading to the clearing of forested lands.

How many trees are cut down for agriculture?

As per Global Forest Watch in the chart below, from 2001 to 2019, 3.8 % of tree cover loss in India occurred in regions where deforestation was the major cause of loss and the three major drivers of deforestation in India for the purpose of agricultural development are seen to be as:

  • Small Scale Agriculture: Temporary loss or permanent deforestation due to small- and medium-scale agriculture.

  • Forest Harvesting: Temporary loss from the plantation and natural forest harvesting, with some deforestation of primary forests.

  • Commercial Agriculture: Large-scale deforestation linked primarily to commercial agricultural expansion (palm, soya, industrial-based meat and dairy).

Figure: Transition of annual tree loss in India for the expansion of agriculture

Now, taking into account the case study below on the forest cover change in India from 1930 - 2013, according to the findings, forest-covered an area of 869,012 square kilometers in 1930 and was left with only 625,565 square kilometers in 2013 indicating a net loss of 243,447 square kilometers (28%) over eight decades. The quantification suggested that the annual rate of gross deforestation was 0.07 % in 1995 - 2005 and 0.05 % in 2005 - 2013. Furthermore, the major contributor to deforestation was found to be agriculture.

Figure: Forest cover change in India from 1930 - 2013

Thus we can observe that this sort of development for agriculture simply not only adds to the stress on forests and accelerates the loss of important ecosystems but also contributes to high CO2 emission.

Problems of existing agricultural policies:

There are various national and state agricultural policies in India aimed to conserve forests which support opportunities to reduce deforestation at lower cost with the revenue generated from agriculture. But there are certain loopholes that minimize the goal of reducing deforestation in India such as:

  • The subsidies which are maintained through area-based payments result in little changes in agricultural behaviour and environmental performance.

  • Insufficient climate action plans have been linked to false claims which are leading to the failure of such policies.

  • Inconsistency and lack of transparency are degrading the results in leadership, decision-making and policies.

  • Corruption is largely failing the effectiveness of these policies in the fight against deforestation.

Solution to the conservation of forest:

We can say at a certain level that deforestation has decreased in the current environmental scenario and nevertheless, it's too early to say. The money-oriented nature of forest resources might entice people to prolong destruction and thus it can be minimized in certain ways.

  • Complete prohibition of forest cutting for agricultural purposes

  • Reduce the consumption of paper

  • Awareness about deforestation and overall climate change

  • Encourage the purchase of sustainable and forest-friendly products

  • Reduce consumption of deforested products

  • Strong implementation of government regulations across the country

  • Encouragement of sustainable agriculture

How can Agri-Tech innovation be a bridge?

However, we must realise that we will need to replant many of the trees that have been destroyed, so I will include a few innovations in agriculture in the list which are largely promoted by Agri-Tech companies to help in the conservation of forests.

1. Real-time tracking of tree cover

  • Greenstand:

  • EcoMatcher:

  • Forestapp:

  • Satelligence:

2. Cloud-based analysis of land usage

  • Confluent:

  • Landdox:

3. Audio sensing devices

  • Rainforest Connection:

  • Hitachi Vantara:

  • IoTrees:

4. Powder that can be scanned and sprayed on trees

  • Greenwood (Stardust powder):

5. Drones for reforestation

  • Droneseed:

  • Flash Forest:

  • Lord of the Trees:

However deforestation is still continuing at an alarming rate, technology and innovation will be required to assist combat illegal logging, monitor forest health, and boost restoration initiatives. And we shouldn’t forget that we need to slow down the key drivers of deforestation in the first place. With our collective efforts, we will be able to leave behind a greener and more diverse forest landscape for many generations to come.

About Global Launch Base:

Global Launch Base specializes in bringing high-tech innovation for Agri-Tech and Conservation into the Indian Market. Our expertise includes working with high-tech European Agri-Tech companies and working with local farmers to bring innovative best practices from across the world to Indian Agriculture.

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1. Hosonuma, N., Herold, M., Sy, V., Fries, R.S., Brockhausa, M., Verchot, L., Angelson, A., Romijn, E. (2012). An assessment of deforestation and forest degradation drivers in developing countries. Environmental Research Letters, 4 (7): 1-12.

2. Map: Reddy,C.K., Jha, C.S., Dadhwal, V.K, Krishna, P.H., Pasha, S.V., Satish, K.V., Dutta, K., Saranya, K.R.L., Rakesh, F., Rajashekar, G., Diwakar, P.G. (2016). Quantification and monitoring of deforestation in India over eight decades. Biodiversity and Conservation, 25(1) :93-116.

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