Into the woods: The link between forests and food security

Environmental campaigner Bianca Jagger says restoring forest landscapes is a vital part of climate-smart agriculture.

Bianca Jagger

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko
Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger believes there’s no way to ensure that everyone in the world will have enough to eat without overcoming the growing impact of climate change. And that, says Jagger, means bringing back the world’s forests.

“We aren’t talking about just forest restoration,” says the renowned environmental campaigner. “We are talking about forest landscape restoration, which can accommodate a mosaic of different land uses, including agriculture, agroforestry, protected wildlife reserves, regenerated forests, managed plantations, and riverside plantings to protect waterways.”

Environmental degradation, climate change and food insecurity are all interconnected and are all issues of social justice.”
—Bianca Jagger

Forest landscape restoration, in fact, is why Jagger became an ambassador for the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Bonn Challenge, an initiative launched at an event in 2011 hosted by Germany and Switzerland-based IUCN in collaboration with the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR). The Bonn Challenge calls for world leaders to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded lands—an area roughly half the size of India—by 2020, which IUCN estimates would increase annual crop yields by an equivalent of US$6 billion. So far countries have pledged to restore 60 million hectares under the Bonn Challenge, and in December 2014 Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru began their 10 million-hectare restoration programs.

“Environmental degradation, climate change and food insecurity are all interconnected and are all issues of social justice,” says Jagger, who advocates for the Bonn Challenge with heads of state, senior ministers, businesses and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). “It’s the women and the poor whom climate change hits the hardest, yet they have few opportunities to overcome those impacts.”

Planting seeds of change

A self-admitted workaholic, the London, England-based Jagger says she has spent decades helping to ensure that global policymakers adopt a broad perspective on both environmental and human rights issues—writing articles, giving lectures, delivering speeches and working with such international organizations as IUCN and Human Rights Watch. Her work has been honored by Amnesty International and the United Nations, and she received the 2004 Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel Prize,” awarded at a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament. Jagger has also made it a priority to take part in United Nations Climate Change Conferences, from Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 to Lima, Peru, in December 2014.

Although Jagger’s high-profile 1970s marriage to rock icon Mick Jagger first brought her fame as a jet-setter, she has been concerned with social and environmental justice for most of her life. During her childhood in Nicaragua in the 1960s, when the country was ravaged by the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, she watched her divorced mother struggle in a macho society and promised herself that her life would be nothing like that. At the age of 16 Jagger won a college scholarship to study political science in Paris, and ultimately became—as some have dubbed her—a “professional activist.” In 2005 she set up the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, which is dedicated to defending human rights, ending violence against women and girls and addressing the threat of climate change.

Today, Jagger believes that a comprehensive, legally binding, worldwide climate deal is essential to combat global warming and protect food security. It’s not just government leaders who should take a decisive stand, says Jagger, but industry leaders too: “Industry can help provide research into how to develop and spread climate-smart agriculture, including forest landscape restoration and sustainable agroforestry.

“Restoration interventions improve soil and water retention,” she adds. “In drylands, integrating trees on farms and in the agricultural landscape can reduce irrigation needs.”

Thanks to a long-term project in West African Niger, for example, “smallholder farmers restored more than 5 million hectares of semi-desert into productive open woodlands using a forest landscape restoration approach,” says Jagger. “As a result of increased tree density, crop yields increased by more than 100 kilograms per hectare, producing enough cereals to feed an additional 2.5 million people a year.”

The Niger project was launched by Christian mission agency SIM International back in 1983, teaching farmers how to protect the shoots of indigenous trees on their farmland and encourage tree growth by pruning. These efforts helped to increase tree diversity by one to three species per farm, and tree density by 12 to 16 trees per hectare, according to a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Environmental Management. Despite doubling of the population since 1980, forest landscape restoration in Niger has helped to maintain per capita production of millet and sorghum, grains that constitute 90 percent of a typical local diet.

Agroforestry advantages

Jagger is also a keen proponent of boosting the tree population through agroforestry, where agricultural and forestry production are combined on the same land (for example, wheat and walnuts).

“If agroforestry is done right—not by clearing primary forest to plant one type of cash tree crop, but instead by adding tree crops to field crops or planting tree crops on degraded or fallow lands—farmers can see increased soil productivity, new long-term crops, and often, lower costs and less need for irrigation or inorganic fertilizers,” she says.

Jagger cites Malawi, where 94 percent of farmers who adopted agroforestry farming methods experienced “improved food security.” The project, which was started in the 1990s by the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (with the Malawi government as a key partner), involved inter-cropping of medium-sized, leguminous trees and maize. Since the trees help fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, this improved nutrient levels available for the crops—enough to replace 75 percent of the nitrogen otherwise required from mineral fertilizers, according to a study published in 2011 in Sustainable Agriculture.

Yet neither forest restoration nor halting climate change will be truly possible without addressing the issues of human rights too, says Jagger. “For most of my adult life, I have advocated that in order to tackle climate change, we need the forests,” she says. “But in order to protect the forests, we need indigenous people: their wisdom and knowledge [about traditional ways of using natural resources sustainably]. We need to listen to them because their input can be invaluable to the overall success of our efforts.”

Marta Zaraska

Based in Fontainebleau, France, Marta Zaraska has written feature articles for the science sections of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and other media. She is currently working on a non-fiction book about humanity’s addiction to meat for Basic Books, titled “Meathooked.”

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