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[SINGAPORE] Maximising crop yields on existing farms in an effort to stem rampant land clearance in developing countries may become financially untenable in the long-term, researchers say.
Researchers from Singapore, Switzerland and the United Kingdom modelled the long-term consequences of this ‘agricultural intensification’ on future conservation costs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In the DRC, which has some of the largest remaining forests in the world, the researchers found that a new agricultural intensification and conservation programme could double or triple cassava and maize yields by introducing disease-resistant plant varieties, including fertiliser use and improving farming practices to spare other areas for conservation.
- Agricultural intensification is touted as an ideal solution for boosting yields and conserving forests
- But a new study in Africa finds that it could lead to high costs in the long-term
- The models used could be applied to South-East Asia and elsewhere, says researchers
"On paper, [agricultural] intensification has the potential to increase incomes, exports, food security and conservation," says Jacob Phelps, a doctorate student at the National University of Singapore who co-led the research with Luis Roman Carrasco, an assistant professor at the same university.
But while the technique leads to immediate benefits for both farmers and conservationists, it also involved significant long-term trade-offs.
Currently, initiatives such as the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) use financial incentives to encourage people in tropical developing countries to participate in agricultural intensification.
Because protecting forests is such a cost-efficient strategy for reducing global carbon emissions, the researchers say, paying farmers previously involved in ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture (the clearing by burning of forest lands for agricultural production) to adopt intensive farming has become a leading climate change mitigation strategy.
But REDD+ incentives would cost more over time, the study finds. As a farm becomes more productive, its value will increase and thus rents will increase, according to various scenarios modelled by the researchers.
The researchers warn that conservation expenditure will have to dramatically increase to compete with future changes in agricultural practices. Hence, the study illustrates that contemporary policies such as REDD+ tend to focus on short-term conservation and on improving the livelihoods of poor communities around forested areas, but risk overlooking on long-term conservation.
Policymakers may also need to find non-financial benefits that promote conservation, such as policies that do not prescribe cash payments but instead focus on livelihood developments, the researchers note.
The authors say the model scenarios based on the DRC can be applied elsewhere but it must be recalibrated to each particular region.
In South-East Asia, for example, slash-and-burn agriculture has typically been the preserve of poor subsistence farmers, but the authors note that the rapid shift towards high-value cash crops such as palm oil and rubber may spur deforestation despite environmental regulations and financial incentives.
"Increases in the cost of conservation in places like Indonesia could be significantly greater than we discuss in the context of the DRC, because of the high value of oil palm compared to lower-value cassava and maize we modelled in the DRC," Carrasco says.
J. Damien Platten, a molecular biologist at the International Rice Research Institute, says: "Slash and burn is a traditional way of life in many places, yet the model does not account for motivations other than strict economic ones. Intensive agriculture may make little difference to these people".
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month (15 April).
PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1220070110 (2013)