Agricultural intensification and deforestation: Journal Club with Felix Lim

At this point in the academic year, leadership of our Grantham Scholars’ weekly Journal Club sessions passes from our community of PhD supervisors to the students themselves. Felix Lim was the first of our first years to run a Journal Club and here, he looks at the issues his session raised.

This week’s paper

Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs‘ by J. Phelps, L. R. Carrasco, E. L. Webb, L. P. Koh and U. Pascual

Felix Lim

With the increasing demand for food and resources to feed a rising global population, there is growing pressure on biodiversity conservation – especially in the tropics where some of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are located. Lately, efforts to preserve biodiversity have been focussed on improving crop yield technologies: many argue that intensifying agriculture allows us to produce more, and minimise land use and deforestation rates at the same time.

However, while more studies are focusing on improving crop yield, through new crop varieties and better technology, we seldom consider how this may pan out in the long run. How does agricultural intensification help conservation in the long run?

Phelps et al. (2013)’s paper provided a platform for us to discuss some issues surrounding land use and conservation in the tropics. The authors described how crop yield improvements could, paradoxically, lead to an increased demand for agricultural produce. In addition, because of the high profitability of agriculture, the incentives offered by agricultural expansion and deforestation is expected to increase it further. Conservation policies that promote agricultural intensification, rather than reduce deforestation, could speed up deforestation rates instead.

In our discussion, we first talked about whether agricultural intensification was better for conservation. We wondered how imposing new methods on local farmers might be received, and whether they were effective in the long run. Compared to traditional farming methods by local farmers, new methods would be more cost-efficient, even profitable, but may be more damaging to the environment if unintended outcomes are overlooked. We also talked about how, given the differences in priorities and the magnitudes of impact between large estates and smallholders, implementing conservation policies would be challenging: a scheme may have considerable impact on a smallholder for instance, but larger agents may not be as affected.

We then talked about other examples where agricultural intensification perversely led to expansion of cash crops and other environmental problems, as in the case of palm oil in Southeast Asia. Many small landowners across Southeast Asia switched to oil palm from from other crops (eg, rice) because it was more profitable. The increased rates of land conversion by burning of forests across Indonesia have led to extensive loss of forests and transnational haze problems. While this has sparked many accusations of poor governance and management, we tend to overlook the fact that the rest of the industrialised world is fuelling the increase in demand for palm oil. With this in mind, we talked about whether imposing of schemes and international policies on local communities of developing nations was at all fair.

Our discussion then turned to the challenges of conservation efforts. One of the issues that environmentalists may face when engaging with local communities is that they have different priorities: the concerns of the environmentalists are usually across longer time frames and larger areas than the concerns of the local communities and farmers. We also acknowledged that the health and wellbeing of people and local communities would always be of greater importance to biodiversity conservation. Eradicating a vector-borne epidemic, for example, would probably take precedence over conserving an ecosystem function or service that mosquitoes, which can cause these epidemics, may provide in nature.

Additionally, international conservation efforts (often spearheaded by industrialised nations), could come across as more of a hindrance to the wellbeing of local communities. These differences could explain some of the perverse outcomes that arise from agricultural intensification and other conservation measures. That said, accounting for this difference and finding some form of mutual understanding may be the way forward. Conservation measures that allow positive engagement and understanding with communities could be a better approach to restrictions or even subsidies and compensation policies.

Further reading

Carrasco, L. R., Larrosa, C., Milner-Gulland, E. J., & Edwards, D. P. (2014). A double-edged sword for tropical forests. science, 346(6205), 38-40.

Phelps, J., Carrasco, L. R., Webb, E. L., Koh, L. P., & Pascual, U. (2013). Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(19), 7601-7606.