From traditional to science based: Transforming agricultural practices

In recent times discussions on deforestation in the tropics more often than not have pointed to agricultural expansion as one major factor behind the depletion of forests.

Forests are crucial to life on earth: IITA forest. Photo by IITA.
Forests are crucial to life on earth: IITA forest. Photo by IITA.

This argument has been underpinned by the fact that agricultural growth in the region has been driven by area expansion rather than improved productivity.

Environmentalists say the depletion of forests hurts biodiversity, encourages climate change, and jeopardizes our future existence on this planet.

But a new study finds that increasing agricultural productivity through the application of fertilizers will reduce the rate of deforestation and help transform agriculture with less damage to the environment.

The study by researchers Jim Gockowski of IITA and D. Sonwa of CIFOR, two centers of the CGIAR, established that the boom in production in the last two decades in the major cocoa-producing countries of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon was detrimental to the forest, as farmers had to clear large expanses of trees for cocoa cultivation.

Cocoa production, they say, doubled between 1987 and 2007 but at a heavy cost, as West Africa’s Guinean Rainforest (GRF)—a region described as the ‘global biodiversity hotspot’—shrank to 113,000 km2.

The principal driver of this environmental change has been the expansion of low-input smallholder agriculture that depends on environmentally destructive practices, such as slash-and-burn and land clearing.

The researchers found that increasing the use of fertilizer on cocoa–timber farms would have spared about 2 million ha of tropical forest from being cleared or severely degraded.

Cocoa farmer drying beans. Photo by IITA.
Cocoa farmer drying beans. Photo by IITA.

The study suggested that farmers could have achieved the same outputs without widespread deforestation through the intensified use of fertilizers and agrochemicals coupled with improved crop husbandry.

By doing so farmers would have doubled their incomes and helped to avoid deforestation and degradation. This would have generated a value of over US$1,600 million on 1.3 billion tons of CO2 emissions that would not have come as a result of the deforestation.

The findings should be taken into consideration in discussions about efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), say the researchers. Instead of considering complicated strategies involving monetary or in-kind transfers to farmers or communities for altering their land- use behavior, funds to support REDD could be used to provide incentives and promote agricultural intensification efforts that would lead to higher rural incomes, greater food security, and avoid emissions through the achievement of higher agricultural yields.

The limited use of fertilizer in the GRF (less than 4 kg/ha of total nutrients) may have been logical in 1960, when West African populations were only 25% of today’s levels and forest land was still relatively abundant. That choice is no longer tenable in a context where only 15 to 20% of the GRF remain. There are no longer any frontier forests in West Africa for future generations to exploit.

Strategies to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity in West Africa must thus focus on transforming agricultural practices from the traditional to modern science-based methods. Fertilizers- for-Forest (F4F) technology is available to sustainably intensify production and has achieved impressive increases in cocoa yield on a limited scale in parts of the GRF.

The authors say that REDD funding support to mitigate climate change as discussed in the Copenhagen Accord offers the potential of significant new public resources for investments in agricultural research and extension and market infrastructure to support the transformation of traditional agriculture in West Africa. The estimated value of the CO2 emissions thus avoided is conservatively estimated at $565/ha for achieving the envisaged doubling of yields. A significant proportion of REDD+ funding should be used to increase the adoption and level of fertilizer use in an F4F program.