Photo credit: Matthew Steil/WRI
Photo credit: Matthew Steil/WRI

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Trees are being cut down for farming, but a new study shows that a lot of land already cleared could be used instead.

"We are one shock away from a full-blown crisis," stated Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, at a recent meeting of the bank and the IMF. He was referring to a critical increase in poverty, resulting from the escalating cost of food. The UN's food price index has risen 37% since March 2010. Basic cereal prices are up 60% over this period. Wheat is up 63%, and maize 83%. Roughly 1 million people slide into extreme poverty for each 1% rise in global food prices, the bank's analysts calculate.

Availability of land for farming is a key factor in long-term food supply and prices. As the human population expands, the remaining forests, wetlands and other fragile ecosystems will come under greater threat as farmers push further into the frontiers of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo, as well as intensifying production in North America, Europe and beyond. Feeding billions more and feeding the poor properly will be possible only if better use is made of available land.

About half the world's forest has been cleared for farming or seriously damaged by logging, fires, drainage, pollution and other ills. But where forests once grew they can grow again.

A new analysis, carried out by the World Resources Institute, South Dakota State University, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, found that more than 1bn hectares of land where forest once stood is now degraded, and could be put to more productive uses. This is an area larger than the entire United States.

Some of this degraded and underused land could be used for food and tree crop production without cutting down another square inch of standing forest. In order to make this possible, governments and development agencies need to invest in more careful planning, incentives, investment and controls. Special care is needed to ensure that local communities that may be using parts of the land are respected and fully involved in decisions to intensify use or to restore forest.

The remainder of the 1bn hectares could be restored to forest and woodland. Once restored, it will also play a greater role in supporting nutrient cycling, reducing erosion, sequestering carbon,managing water and further supporting food production across the wider landscape downstream.

In Indonesia, the World Resources Institute, together with a local partner, Sekala, is putting these ideas to the test by working with the Indonesian government, communities and industry to shift new oil palm estates on to already cleared and burnt land instead of cutting species-rich rainforest. Indonesia has rapidly become the world's largest producer of palm oil. The government plans to expand oil palm plantations by about a million hectares a year to meet surging global demand for vegetable oil and biofuel. Until now, it was assumed that most of this expansion would result in the clearing and burning of precious rainforest. With more careful mapping and analysis, a new vision has emerged. Top officials are proposing new plans to use degraded land for the expansion of plantations. Mapping has shown that there is more than enough such land potentially available to meet demand.

Brazilian groups are looking to the Indonesian experience as they struggle to find space for that country's expanding beef, soya and sugar cane enterprises. Through a careful process of defining degraded land, mapping it, and consulting with existing landowners and local communities, plans and policies encourage a shift in future investment to this kind of land and away from the forests of the Amazon.

Development agencies, charities, national governments and business should transfer some of their attention to the opportunity of restoring already cleared and degraded land to more productive use. This needs to be done equitably and should be driven by the local communities, who have the most to gain from the long-term potential of these efforts to contribute to enhanced food production, ecosystem services and poverty reduction.