Consuming the Forest: Deforestation and Its Link to Food Insecurity

Every day, consumers make choices that drive demand for competitively priced products. Yet, choices like what you eat, what furniture you purchase and how you fuel your car could come at a high cost: they might contribute to deforestation. Clearing forests contributes to climate change, which directly affects agricultural output and food security and has potentially severe consequences for vulnerable communities.

While many factors contribute to deforestation, global agricultural production systems are a leading cause. To meet the demands of a growing population’s consumption patterns and imbalanced trade relations between the Global North and South, these systems may resort to harmful practices like clearing forests for crop production and livestock grazing. However, these same agricultural systems also face the brunt of the consequences, including food insecurity.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported a loss of 420 million hectares of forest worldwide between 1990 and 2020, with the trend continuing at a rate of 10 million hectares per year. The FAO also reported that around 90 per cent of this deforestation is attributed to agricultural expansion, with South America, Africa and Asia experiencing the highest net forest losses.

The reasons for deforestation are intertwined in a complex cycle. Deforestation can also be a result of market pressure and low prices. For example, poverty in rural communities sometimes offers no other option than to clear forests for agriculture, wood or charcoal production. Furthermore, deforestation in hill areas can lead to reduced water availability for agriculture and food production.  Yet producers are often unaware of the consequences it has on human rights and the environment.

However, despite the increase in agricultural production, our global food systems are not yet capable of delivering food security because of factors like unfair distribution of resources or food loss and waste. In 2022 735 million people faced chronic hunger, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI, FAO 2023); the majority were living in rural regions in South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

“[The] expansion of food production on the current basis is not going to be sustainable”, said University of Kent professor Keith Somerville in response to a 2018 World Wildlife Fund report. “The developed, industrial world may still be able to ensure its short-term food security, but communities across large areas of central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia suffer perpetual food insecurity”.

Ultimately, addressing deforestation needs to go hand in hand with addressing social sustainability, including food security.

“We can no longer operate in silos, working to stop commodity-driven deforestation in one arena, and tackling food security in another”, said Petra Tanos in a World Economic Forum article. “Feeding a growing population, protecting critical ecosystems and sustaining the livelihoods of rural communities are competing priorities”.

For example, deforestation-driven food insecurity has been reported among the nine territories that share the Amazon: Peru’s forests have been cleared for oil palm and cacao plantations to meet consumer demands, which has resulted in the Shipibo-Konibo Indigenous community experiencing violent land conflicts and losing access to critical hunting land that provided food for their community. Other conflicts were reported in Brazil and Bolivia.

In order to resolve these issues, every actor in the supply chain must play their part. Consumers are already demanding deforestation-free products and governments are enacting regulations to ensure deforestation-free supply chains, like the European Union Deforestation Regulation (EUDR). In addition to mandatory regulations, voluntary guidance like the OECD-FAO Guidance for Responsible Agricultural Supply Chains suggests companies create transparency for their supply chains, develop risk-based due diligence practices, participate in certification schemes and support sustainable agricultural practices “to help reduce poverty and meet community food security needs without expansion into forests”.

Addressing deforestation goes hand in hand with addressing social insecurities of the people affected by deforestation. Sustainability standards that are complemented by the Food Security Standard (FSS) can support agricultural producers in addressing social sustainability, especially the right to food within their operations. The FSS enables producers to assess human rights risks and mitigate or prevent them through practical tools that apply to all types of agricultural products and their uses, as well as to all farm sizes and farm types. It enables companies to demonstrate their commitment to human rights due diligence which enhances the well-being of the workers, their families and the surrounding communities.

Written by Miriam Giannina Alegre Caballero, an ESG student assistant at Meo Carbon Solutions for the Food Security Standard (jointly managed by Meo Carbon Solutions and Welthungerhilfe (WHH)).

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The Food Security Standard (FSS) takes into account the Right to adequate Food in agricultural production. Applying the FSS in sustainability certification systems ensures that farmers, workers, and neighbouring communities are food secure.

Welthungerhilfe is one of the largest private aid organisations in Germany, independent of politics and religion. It was established in 1962, as the German section of the “Freedom from Hunger Campaign”.

Meo Carbon Solutions is an independent consulting company with a focus on sustainable development solutions, smallholder empowerment and social compliance, sustainability certification and carbon footprint improvement. Meo is working on a global scale and supporting the application of the FSS.

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