Now a study has analysed the different pathways behind commodity crop expansion and what drives some commodity farmers to slice into virgin forest while others prefer to develop existing farmland.

In the tropics and beyond, commodity crops are a growing phenomenon. Rubber and coffee farms are springing up across Southeast Asia, cocoa is big in West Africa, soybeans and maize are peppering the Americas, and rapeseed is marching across the rich soils of Eastern Europe. The locations of this agricultural expansion are driven by a variety of factors, including the suitability of the climate, availability and price of land, access to markets, availability of labour, and supportive agricultural policies.

Patrick Meyfroidt from Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium and colleagues have analysed six case studies of rapid commodity crop expansion in order to assess the controlling factors, focusing in particular on the drivers that lead to using virgin forest versus the conversion of existing cleared land. For each of the six case studies – soy in Brazil, oil palm in Peru, banana and pineapple in Costa Rica, coffee in Vietnam, rubber in Vietnam, and oil palm in Indonesia – Meyfroidt and his colleagues compiled land-use change statistics and assessed the influences behind the choice of location.

The team found a huge variation in deforestation, ranging from just 1.7% of commodity cropland being sourced from virgin forest in the Amazonian part of Mato Grosso in Brazil to 89.5% of cropland coming from forests for the rubber expansion front in the centre of Vietnam. By assessing the history of the land use, the policies of the countries and the scale of the farming, Meyfroidt and his colleagues were able to shed light on these huge differences.

In the case study from Brazil they found that previous land use made it beneficial for commodity farmers to opt for non-forest land. “This region of Brazil had experienced large-scale conversion of forests to pastures beginning in the 1980s,” said Marcia Macedo of the Woods Hole Research Center, US. “In the early 2000s economic incentives to produce beef in the region began to decline relative to booming soy markets. By the late 2000s, a large pool of already-cleared pasturelands, coupled with improved enforcement of forest conservation laws, external pressures from consumers and environmental groups, and new commodity-chain instruments aimed at reducing deforestation provided strong incentives for soy growers to expand into suitable pasture areas instead of forest lands.”

The Vietnam case study, meanwhile, demonstrated how a well intentioned policy can easily backfire. “In this region of Vietnam, official policy allows rubber expansion on 'degraded' forests; large companies log forests until they become 'degraded' so that they can then convert them to rubber,” said Meyfroidt, whose findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). “This is a good example of a perverse policy, which was initially designed to accommodate economic development in the form of rubber with forest protection, [and] intended to channel rubber expansion away from dense forests.”

By comparing all six case studies, Meyfroidt and his colleagues were able to draw some general conclusions. They found that the actions of large-scale companies tended to differ from smallholders, because of the variations in assets and the scale of farming they each try to achieve. In particular, large-scale actors often found it easier to purchase a large tract of land in virgin forest; agricultural land already converted from forest is often divided into a mosaic of smallholdings, and not all smallholders may be willing to sell.

What’s more, the existence of high-quality timber on forested land is an additional attraction to large-scale actors, who have better access to capital investment and export markets, and so are more easily able to sell the wood. “For smallholders, secondary forests that are easier to clear and harbour smaller trees that may be more in demand on local markets are often more attractive than large intact primary forests,” said Meyfroidt. But sometimes both large-scale actors and smallholders were attracted by lenient policies and rich underlying forest soils to chop into virgin forest rather than convert existing land.

It’s hard to draw firm conclusions from just six case studies, and Meyfroidt and his colleagues are keen to take their project further. “Understanding the pathways of commodity crop expansion is important because some pathways contribute far more to global warming and biodiversity loss than others,” said Meyfroidt. “The policies and interventions aimed at mitigating these social and environmental consequences must be adapted to address different pathways of expansion.”

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