How to Reduce Deforestation While Growing More Food

Every week it seems another study, article or video details the threats to our planet posed by deforestation.

It’s commonly estimated that about 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to deforestation. A major driver of deforestation is agriculture, as producers in many areas of the globe cut down or burn forests to grow crops and graze livestock.

But the tide is turning. In the past year, mounting concern from scientists, environmental groups, governments and others has catalyzed action on a global level. In September 2014, more than 130 organizations and groups endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests at the U.N. Climate Summit. Companies like Cargill agreed to do their part to work toward a goal of halving deforestation by 2020 and eliminating it by 2030.

Reaching that goal won’t be simple. Much of the deforestation linked to agriculture is happening because a growing global population is consuming more food. Solutions require balancing the need to conserve natural resources with the urgent necessity to ensure that everyone has enough to eat. Furthermore, approaches will differ from region to region, depending on the realities of a given geography or commodity.

However, innovative collaborations are proving that producing more food and reducing deforestation are not incompatible.

This month, Cargill, McDonald’s and Greenpeace were honored by the Keystone Policy Center with its Leadership in Environment Award for their partnership in Brazil to develop and implement the Soy Moratorium over the past decade.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, deforestation rates in the Amazon biome linked to soy farming rose considerably, setting off alarms in the scientific and environmental communities. In response, Cargill, McDonald’s, Greenpeace and other organizations joined together to devise the voluntary Soy Moratorium, an agreement not to purchase soy grown on lands deforested after the moratorium was signed in 2006. Satellite monitoring capabilities developed previously by Cargill and The Nature Conservancy were used to ensure compliance.

Such a major multi-stakeholder collaboration was unprecedented at the time. And it wasn’t clear from the beginning that the moratorium would be a success. But the continuous efforts of all the organizations involved – including industry, NGOs and the Brazilian government – made a substantial difference. The annual rate of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon region has decreased by nearly 80 percent since 2006.

This is a clear demonstration that a dedicated collaboration with creative thinking can have a dramatic impact. It also shows that organizations wanting to make positive change will increasingly need to join forces with new and different groups, even groups they may have treated with suspicion in the past.

Necessity has become the mother of a new era of cooperation among multiple stakeholders in the global food system, cooperation focused on the twin goals of feeding the world and protecting the planet. The case study of soy in the Amazon proves that these goals are not mutually exclusive. Although there is much work ahead, it would be a mistake to let pessimism get the best of us and lead us to think nothing can be done, rather than taking action jointly to drive change for the future.

Mark Murphy is Cargill’s Assistant Vice President for Corporate Responsibility

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