Frances Seymour’s Opening Talk on Forests and Food Security

Frances Seymour, former Director General of CIFOR, gave the keynote address of the Conference of Yale Chapter of the International Society of Tropical Foresters after an introduction by Sir Peter Crane. The talk, entitled “Forests and food security: Questions and quandaries” gave an overview of some of the many challenges of conserving nature and alleviating hunger while increasing social well-being.

Forests have many functions on different geographic scales. Forests have positive impacts on the farm- and the landscape-level, and also a continental and global scale. Services provided by forests reach from habitat and pollination, to water and materials, to climate regulation and climate change mitigation, to mention only a few. There is still a lack of appreciation of the many ways in which forests contribute to food security. Increasing agricultural production is not sufficient to improve food security, and solely focusing on agricultural intensification does not address the complexity of the issues. More than 2/3 of the increase in food production over the last decades has come through intensification and not through expansion. Therefore further possibilities for intensification may be marginal, as Seymour stated. Furthermore, sparing land for forests through intensifying agriculture must be accompanied by policies that restrain forest conversion. If this is not addressed properly even more forest could be destroyed, as the higher profitability of even more intensely managed agricultural land incentivizes agricultural expansion and further clearing of forests.

Providing a source of income for local people is another important function of forests. The Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) collected data to find the percentage of household income derived from forests and forest products in certain communities. They found that in the researched areas the forests’ contribution constitutes 23% (more than that from agriculture). This income is mainly beneficial to women, who are often in charge of many of the non-timber forest products like fruits that are found in forests. In the Congo Basin, 80% of protein consumed is estimated to come from bush meat. This is the same order of magnitude as the beef produced in the Amazon basin – all without chopping down wood.
The forests’ contribution to food security is especially important in times of scarcity or for marginalized people. Seymour emphasizes that forests are the setting for swidden agriculturalist farmers. This form of agriculture provides a source of food that maintains much of the carbon in the area – more than oil palm or traditional agricultural systems.

Concerning the forests’ perception in public and governance mechanisms for integrating forest and food security, Seymour brought up a number of quandaries:

How should we frame the forest and food security issue? Who is our audience? The forestry world has not done a very good job in communicating the importance of forests to food security. Often, only the direct provision of food from forests is discussed, and mushrooms and caterpillars are unlikely to get much policy traction. It is necessary to also talk about the importance of forests in providing the services upon which food production outside of the forest depends. This opens the dialogue to include a wide variety of agricultural crops. For instance, coffee production declines with increasing distance from the forest edge because of a decrease in coffee pollinators further away from the forest. Linkages like these should be of great interest to national and sub-national policy makers, so we need to improve the understanding of the importance of forests to food production.

Should we dismantle the boundaries between the forestry and agriculture worlds and only talk about landscapes? In natural ecosystems there are mostly no clear boundaries but rather slow gradient. Mosaic landscapes often perform very well in terms of production, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. Seymour stated that a landscape approach is currently also very popular at the World Bank. Some organizations, such as the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), are working between agriculture and forestry worlds already. UNFCCC COPs are currently planning a landscape day or weekend to integrate the previously separate Forest Day and Agriculture and Rural Development Day. Seymour mentioned concerns about this attempt because mergers of two groups often result in suppressing the weaker part. There is some risk that the forestry part would be politically and institutionally overwhelmed by the dominance of the agricultural community.

How do we design market and governance mechanisms that protect forest and at the same time protect local social rights? There is a need to design global management strategies. Taking the example of palm oil, Seymour said that many NGOs have invested in working with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). An issue with the RSPO is that the interests of participating companies have resulted in a rather weak certification system. Certified palm oil therefore still doesn’t guarantee deforestation-free products or sufficient benefits to workers and the protection of their rights. Another problem is that only about 50% of the certified palm oil is taken up by the market, so demand for certified oil palm needs to be actively increased.

Finally, Seymour asks where we should focus our efforts. There are political, social, economic, and communication challenges, among others. Seymour paused and stated that, in this room there are many resources to overcome these challenges. She hopes that the dialog here at Yale will contribute to tackling these issues. An important last note was that we should frame solutions in a way that promotes collaboration between sectors instead of creating a sense of competition.