Food production puts rain forests at risk

  • 30 April 2015, Thursday

Source: Manila Bulletin
29 Apr 2015

The world is fast losing rain forests. Studies have shown that the earth is using up 5,280 square meters (sq.m.) or 1.32 acres per second or about one football field a second of its forest. Intense pressure to expand crop production to feed 9 billion people by 2050 will further threaten the planet’s own survival in the long run.

Research group WiseGeek said temperate and tropical rain forests cover 6 percent of the earth’s surface and host 30 million types of plants and animals since these receive a fairly huge amount of rainfall.

“The rapid destruction of this valuable ecosystem puts at risk not only the animals that live in it, but also the numerous foods and medicinal plants that we benefit from. In fact, a quarter of modern medication is made from plants that grow in rainforests. About 70 percent of the plants that can be used in the treatment of cancer are rainforest plants,” WiseGeek reported.

Tropical rainforests also produce much of the oxygen in the world and hold 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.

“If the rate of rainforest destruction continues, between 5 percent and 10 percent of the species that call it home are expected to become extinct each decade,” it added.

This problem cannot be lost on the Philippines, which is implementing the National Greening Program (NGP) which intends to plant one billion trees before the middle of next year.

A study conducted by a research team in Laguna supported by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (Searca) showed that water loss has intensified due to prolonged dry spells and the higher rate of water extraction from aquifers and interstitial sources.

Deforested mountains in Southern Luzon likewise worsened flooding as these could hardly absorb rainfall to increase the volume of groundwater.

In an article published by World Resources Institute (WRI), Nigel Sizer, Rachael Petersen, James Anderson, Matt Hansen, Peter Potapov and David Thau said significant forest loss was registered in Russia and Canada during 2013.

“There is also some good news, with a slowing of tree cover loss in Indonesia, though rates of loss continue a troubling rise across the tropics as a whole,” they added.

“Global tree cover loss in 2013 continued to be high at over 18 million hectares (69,500 square miles)—about twice the size of Portugal—slightly lower than 2012, but a troubling 5.2 percent increase over the 2000-2012 average. In 2011-2013, Russia and Canada topped the list (mostly due to forest fires), jointly accounting for 34 percent of total loss,” Sizer and his colleagues said.

On the other hand, the rapid deforestation in Indonesia appeared to have been slowed down.

“Indonesia’s annual tree cover loss declined in 2013 to the lowest point in almost a decade, pulling the three-year average down to 1.6 million hectares (6,200 square miles) of annual tree cover loss. In addition to a slowing of total tree cover loss, Indonesia’s loss of primary forests slowed to an average of less than half a million hectares per year from 2011-2013, the lowest in the last decade,” the authors said.

“Primary forests are mature, natural forests that have not been cleared in the past 30 years, and Indonesia’s represent some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich forests on earth. The drop is surprising, since research published last year by the University of Maryland and WRI showed Indonesia’s loss of primary forests increased rapidly from 2001-2012. A single year, however, does not make a trend,” Sizer and his colleagues added.

“Tree cover loss is a measure of the total loss of all trees within a specific area regardless of the cause. It includes human-driven deforestation, forest fires both natural and man-made, clearing trees for agriculture, logging, plantation harvesting, and tree mortality due to disease and other natural causes. Tree cover gain also happened during 2013, but is not included in the 2013 update or this analysis as it is more difficult to monitor than loss. Much of the tree cover loss is only temporary, as forests regenerate after disturbances such as fire, though in the boreal region this is a very slow process,” they added.

“Although the tropics had more tree cover loss overall, the boreal region showed the steepest increase of loss of any region. Russia (which at 882 million hectares has the biggest area of tree cover in the world) lost an average of 4.3 million hectares (16,600 square miles) of tree cover per year between 2011 and 2013, an area larger than Switzerland. Fires in the boreal are partly natural (natural fire dynamics play an important role in boreal forests) and partly man-made, with climate change and infrastructure increasingly having an impact. The forest will grow back, but this process takes centuries,” Sizer and the other authors said.

Climatologists have warned that climate change could increase the frequency and intensity of boreal wildfires in the current century and intensify greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

In some cases, forest fires have breached records in the last 10,000 years.

“Forest fires can also influence the climate. Although the exact relationship between boreal forest fires and the climate is still uncertain (for example, removing trees may also potentially increase albedo and lead to cooler temperatures), larger and more frequent forest fires do generate more greenhouse gas emissions from burning trees and peat soils. Leading scientists at NASA and elsewhere estimate that the overall effect will be to warm the climate,” they concluded.