MANILA - A top agriculture expert of the World Resources Institute (WRI) has admitted that even with higher crop yields, the world would not be able to close the expected 70 percent calorie gap between 2006 and 2050.
Craig Hanson said in his article on October 2, 2015, “If Croplands Expand, Where Should They Go?” that for WRI it was possible for the world to find ways to sufficiently feed itself without any further conversion of natural ecosystems into crop lands.
“We found, however, that it may be difficult to boost crop yields and limit crop demand growth sufficiently to close the approximately 70 percent gap between global crop calories available in 2006 and those needed in 2050 with absolutely no expansion of cropland,” Hanson admitted.
“New cropland historically has come from the conversion of forests, grasslands and wetlands. But such conversion generally has high environmental and social impacts. Finding alternative locations for any inevitable cropland expansion is therefore urgent,” he noted.
Both the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have been working on agroforestry programs that promote upland agriculture and boost reforestation of logged-over land or those that have need to be protected from erosion.
Palm oil plantations
A study conducted for the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) by Dr. Jose Hermis P. Patricio showed that instead of production areas for rice and other crops, what have expanded are plantations for palm oil, all of which covered 46,608 hectares in Mindanao, Bohol and Palawan as of June 2009.
Searca has also been working with the GIZ, a German development assistance agency, in pushing the “blue economy,” which integrates food production systems and environmental protection for terrestrial, forest, coastal and marine ecosystems.
In Northern Mindanao alone, 20,000 hectares of agricultural land are being targeted for conversion into oil palms, and another 20,000 hectares have been set aside for the same purpose in Palawan, which was declared by Unesco as a Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1990.
The study conducted by Dr. Jose Hermis P. Patricio on the feasibility of cultivating oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) and establishing refineries in the forested areas in 4,000 hectares of Impasug-ong, Bukidnon noted that the plantation would run smack against Higaonon, a minority group that claims the area as part of its ancestral domain.
Patricio also warned that the plantation would ruin the lush dipterocarp forest in the town.
A former agriculture secretary said palm oil is low-class oil and the tree is practically worthless when it is senile and could not be used as lumber, unlike coconut.
Searca Director Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit Jr. stressed the study is significant since it covers the issue of ancestral domain, the need for economic development and the pressure on existing primary forests in the hills of Bukidnon, which is generally categorized as typhoon-free.
"The results of soil, topographic and climatic assessments suggest that oil palm is generally suitable in the proposed project area," Patricio said. "However, plantation sites with more than 26 percent slopes are considered as not favorable, while areas with 21 percent slopes are marginally suitable and those with more than 37 percent are not at all suitable for growing palm oil."
Hanson and his team eventually produced a new working paper and argued that cropland expansion for sustainable food production should be limited to “lands with low environmental opportunity costs.”
In Benguet, areas that used to be be swamped by mine tailings are now being rehabilitated, with another Searca report noting that some hardy vegetation had grown near a tailings pond while more plants have grown in areas that did not suffer any spill.
For Hanson, many areas considered to be degraded or have lost fertility are actually cropland. “By definition, it cannot be a candidate for cropland expansion, but rather for restoring crop productivity (which we support). Although the phrase might connote vast tracts of uninhabited or unutilized land, degraded lands are not necessarily vacant areas that are unused by people or that fail to provide benefits,” he noted.
Hanson noted that there appears to be a “race for degraded lands” among a variety of interests, including those seeking to boost food production, increase wood product supplies, advance bioenergy, and restore native ecosystems.
“Beyond invoking ‘degradation,’ other attempts to identify areas suitable for crop expansion often point to lands whose conversion actually would have high environmental impacts or forgone benefits. These lands include: (1) ‘potentially arable’ land that is not currently farmed, (2) wet savannas, (3) grazing lands, (4) secondary forests, and (5) abandoned farmland. Considering these land types as always or inherently appropriate for cropland expansion can lead to overestimates of the amount of land available for sustainable cropland expansion, creating unrealistic expectations,” Hanson warned.
He said any expansion of cropland to lands with low environmental opportunity costs, which means forgone environmental benefits.
“We propose that lands with low environmental opportunity costs are those that simultaneously meet at least four criteria: 1) Not already supporting crops: land that is already being used for crop production (no matter how unproductive) is not eligible for cropland area expansion; 2) minimal impact on native ecosystems and biodiversity: Any cropland expansion should avoid converting natural ecosystems or negatively impacting wildlife; 3) low ‘carbon loss to crop production’ ratios: These are lands whose conversion to cropping would release relatively little carbon compared to the likely tons of crop production per hectare; 4) low ‘blue water’ footprint: These are lands whose conversion to cropping would lower or at least maintain pressure on freshwater resources,” Hanson concluded.