Crop production in restoration: Healthier land without jeopardising food security goals

Tree-based landscapes can be some of our best nature-based solutions to sustain land health. A new study investigates the benefits of integrating crop production into global restoration efforts.

field of grains

The degradation of healthy ecosystems, productive land, and fertile soils pose a significant challenge to food production and the well-being of all people around the world. Given the extent of challenges that natural resources and global food production are facing (climate change, economic growth, and changes in diets), we believe that a new comprehensive approach is necessary for addressing land and soil degradation.

Initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge and New York Declaration on Forests – to bring 350 million hectares of the world's deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2030 – are bringing about this change with the promotion of the forest landscape restoration (FLR) approach. The FLR approach supports positive change by fully integrating all types of land uses in restoration efforts. In this context, the role of agricultural land is particularly important because it promotes the active role of communities in restoring productive landscapes, thus resulting in a broader uptake of restoration actions. However, only limited research to understand how full integration of crop production into restoration efforts could impact food security, forest carbon stocks, and greenhouse emissions has been done.

IUCN, in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), funded by a grant from the UK Department for International Development, carried out a study to investigate the benefits of integrating crop production into global restoration efforts. The recently published findings show that investments in wide-scale restoration efforts have a positive impact on food-crop production.

About the study

The study evaluates the benefits of including crop production in global restoration efforts, particularly assessing the potential conflicts between the implementation of restoration on a global scale and food security. The analysis is based on a comparison of a business-as-usual scenario without restoration, with a series of alternative scenarios that include different levels of adoption of restoration practices. All scenarios share the same assumptions regarding GDP, population, and intrinsic country and crop-specific agricultural productivity growth. Using global datasets and decision support modeling approaches, the study provides estimated benefits that could be attained by including agriculture in global restoration efforts.

Key findings

Results indicate that a wide uptake of restoration practices on degraded land would have a series of positive outcomes. Among the benefits are an increase in agricultural production, lower commodity prices, reduction in the number of undernourished children and people at risk of hunger, a potential decrease of the cropland encroachment into environmentally sensitive areas, improvements in soil fertility and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. Current modeling capabilities prevented the study from including agroforestry or agrosilvopastoral systems in the simulated scenarios. Therefore, the results are likely to be an underestimation of the full benefits of restoration practices on agricultural land.

Benefits of the maximum involvement scenario of agriculture (maize, rice and wheat) in global restoration:

  • Gains in cumulative output range from 0.9% to 1.8%.
  • Growth in commodity prices is reduced by 2.2% for maize, 8.8% for rice, and 2.4% for wheat.
  • The number of undernourished children could be reduced by an additional 0.7% and the population at risk of hunger by 3.6%.

Effects on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon stock:

  • Although considered only indicative of climate change mitigation and resilience, the greatest impacts of restoration are the high potential for GHG emissions reduction and the gains in the forest carbon stock. The changes in the soil organic carbon, albeit relatively small, are important because they represent increases in soil fertility and in soil water retention, and have positive implications for the overall resilience of production systems.

Why is this significant?

An estimated 27% of global forest loss can be attributed to land use change for commodity production. Land and soil degradation produce substantial challenges in meeting global food needs, particularly those in rural and poor areas. The inclusion of restoration technics in agricultural land is particularly important because it provides society with a full range of benefits while avoiding further deforestation and land degradation. The findings of this study provide evidence to governments and policymakers that it is possible to meet national restoration commitments without jeopardizing food security goals. The benefits, as demonstrated by the study, can also facilitate wide uptake of restoration practices and the implementation of large-scale restoration projects.

“Efforts to enhance the functionality and productivity of agriculture landscapes should not be treated in isolation from the global restoration efforts.” – Salome Begeladze, IUCN Forest Conservation Programme

Practitioners and decision-makers should take the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration as an opportunity to coordinate efforts needed to direct investments where restoration is most effective and beneficial to regaining ecological functionality and enhancing human well-being. Agriculture plays a very significant role in these efforts. However, large-scale restoration in agriculture may require addressing barriers to restoration such as policy frameworks, extension services, tenure systems, governance structures, access to finance, etc. Moreover, given the assumptions and limitations of the modeling in this study, it is necessary to keep supporting research into which types of instruments, incentives, policies, and investments can play a role in broader uptake of restoration efforts across different land uses – including agriculture.

See the full article

The role of crop production in the forest landscape restoration approach: Assessing the potential benefits of meeting the Bonn Challenge. 


- Web article by Salome Begeladze, Chetan Kumar and Alessandro De Pinto

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