Farming uses too much land, thanks to wasteful practices and inappropriate incentives. Let’s plant trees and save the world instead
Woodland has a most remarkable effect on the climate, both at the extremely local level and as an essential regulator of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – and ultimately can play a big role in countering climate change. To walk up a highland glen in the driven rain and into a lonely remnant of the ancient Caledonian pine forest is to enter another world. The wind is broken up by the trees, the rain is dissipated into a gentle shower, the temperature rises at least 2°C and there is even a hint of birdsong. It is no wonder the diversity of species in woodland is so much greater than in the open, windswept moor – it is a wonderful place.
Recently I was able to enjoy a similarly weather-enhancing experience in mixed woodland – Norway spruce, oak, beech, larch and Douglas fir, among others – in a German forest, managed for the very long-term sustainable production of timber. In a forest with oak trees that will outlast those who watch them grow from seedlings by at least a generation, long-term is the name of the game. In the mixed-age woodland, the air was warmer than in the surrounding fields, and the open glades were full of dappled light and new trees fighting towards the sky.
However, there were more open, airy glades than there should have been. The German and central European forests are under attack. The bark beetle has co-existed with the Norway spruce (a native species) for millennia, but today it has become a scourge, as trees succumb to a drier, hotter climate and the beetle takes advantage of the stress. Trees are dying in unprecedented numbers. And this is happening at a time when we need the forests as part (and it could be a big part) of mitigating some of the worst effects of climate change.
Mankind has been using forests as a source of sustenance and shelter for millennia. Hunter-gatherers followed the forests north as the glaciers of the last ice age retreated some 11,700 years ago. At much the same time, in the Middle East, the first farmers set in motion in the Fertile Crescent a relentless change to land use and forest cover, the cumulative effects of which we see around us today. Forests were no longer merely a source of shelter and sustenance but of raw materials for construction and industry. The land they had occupied became farmland and pasture; the forests were in retreat. But it all happened very slowly, and periodically the forests made a modest recovery – the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Black Death in Europe in the mid-14th century reversed economic and population growth sufficiently to see farm land abandoned and trees re-emerge.
Let’s roll forward to today. We have more than 7.3bn people on the planet, fewer of whom than ever before are hungry or malnourished. Mankind has performed a food productivity miracle, much of it in the last six decades. The miracle, however, has come at a cost. The industrial and agricultural revolutions that delivered sufficient (often excess) nutrition have been powered by fossil fuels, ancient carbon released in a hurry in a couple of centuries, bringing the climate-changing impact with which we are now so familiar.
Now we look up and recognise the carbon sequestration role played so effectively by the forests. Sadly, however, and in some tropical countries in particular, we continue their destruction – indeed, Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, seems to revel in the ‘right’ of his nation to destroy its forests to create more farmland (which we do not need, as I will explain below), based on the specious argument that Europeans cut down their forests hundreds of years ago. His history may be correct, but the context is very different today. And the less said about palm oil the better.
Today, there are around 14bn ha of cropped farmland (with annually replanted crops) , 34bn ha of grazing land (some of which is marginal in the extreme) and 1.5bn ha of permanent crops (such as coffee, fruit or rubber plantations) – these last tend to be an improvement in terms of carbon emissions when converted from pasture or arable, but are not so beneficial if old forest is cleared to make way. If farmers were not treated in so many countries as an endangered species and incentivised inappropriately, very substantial productivity gains would be possible – these have stalled for many.