Agriculture is responsible for more than 90% of the deforestation in the tropics, including the Amazon rainforest, a new study has found.

Tropical rainforests, including the Amazon, traditionally known as the ‘lungs of the Earth’, have seen unprecedented deforestation in recent years and a new study led by Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden has found that agriculture is responsible for almost all of it.

Halting deforestation will require a step-change in approach, and to be effective measures must address underlying and indirect roles of agriculture. The study found that between 90% to 99% of all deforestation in the tropics is driven directly or indirectly by agriculture. Yet only half to two-thirds of this results in the expansion of active agricultural production on the deforested land.

The study is a collaboration between many of the world’s leading deforestation experts and provides a new synthesis of the complex connections between deforestation and agriculture and what this means for current efforts to drive down forest loss.

Following a review of the best available data, the new study shows that the amount of tropical deforestation driven by agriculture is higher than 80 percent, the most commonly cited number for the past decade.

Driven ‘directly or indirectly by agriculture’

,This comes at a crucial time following the Glasgow Declaration on Forests at COP26 and ahead of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) later this year and can help ensure that urgent efforts to tackle deforestation in areas such as the Amazon are guided and evaluated by an evidence-base fit for purpose.

Florence Pendrill, lead author of the study at Chalmers, said: “Our review makes clear that between 90 and 99% of all deforestation in the tropics is driven directly or indirectly by agriculture. But what surprised us was that a comparatively smaller share of the deforestation – between 45 and 65% –​​ results in the expansion of actual agricultural production on the deforested land. This finding is of profound importance for designing effective measures to reduce deforestation and promote sustainable rural development.”

The fact that agriculture is the main driver of tropical deforestation is not new. However, previous estimates of how much forest has been converted to agricultural land across the tropics varied widely – from 4.3 to 9.6 million hectares per year between 2011 and 2015. The study’s findings narrow down this range to 6.4 to 8.8 million hectares per year and helps explain the uncertainty in the numbers.

Professor Patrick Meyfroidt from UCLouvain and F.R.S.-FNRS in Belgium, added: “A big piece of the puzzle is just how much deforestation is ‘for nothing’. While agriculture is the ultimate driver, forests and other ecosystems are often cleared for land speculation that never materialised, projects that were abandoned or ill-conceived, land that proved unsuitable for cultivation, as well as due to fires that spread into forests neighbouring cleared areas.”

Understanding the significance of these drivers is key for policy makers – whether in consumer markets such as the European Union’s recently proposed due diligence legislation for ‘deforestation free products’, private sector initiatives for specific commodities, or for rural development policy in producer countries.

The study makes clear that a handful of commodities are responsible for the majority of deforestation linked to actively producing agricultural land  well over half of which is linked to pasture, soy, and palm oil alone. But it also calls out the shortcomings of sector-specific initiatives that are limited in their ability to deal with indirect impacts.

Ultimate goal

Dr Toby Gardner of the Stockholm Environment Institute and director of the supply chain transparency initiative, Trase, stated: “Sector-specific initiatives to combat deforestation can be invaluable, and new measures to prohibit imports of commodities linked to deforestation in consumer markets, such as those under negotiation in the EU, UK and USA, represent a major step forward from largely voluntary efforts to combat deforestation to date. 

“But as our study shows, strengthening forest and land-use governance in producer countries has to be the ultimate goal of any policy response. Supply chain and demand-side measures must be designed in a way that also tackles the underlying and indirect ways in which agriculture is linked to deforestation.

“They need to drive improvements in sustainable rural development, otherwise we can expect to see deforestation rates remaining stubbornly high in many places.”

The study is published in Science.

Image: Mechanical clearance of burnt forest in the Eastern Brazilian Amazon. Credit: Alexander C Lees.