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Global Reforestation: How Likely Is It?

By The Editors

Forests are plant communities dominated by trees and, because of their nature, rely on dynamic associations of living organisms that undergo constant change – deforestation may be easily followed by reforestation, either natural or man-driven. How likely is it that global reforestation will occur? According to a recently published study entitled “Outlook on a worldwide forest transition“, it is not likely. Results of the study indicate that — unless we substantially boost agricultural production or we consume less food — the forest cover of the planet will continue to decline over the next two centuries until it stabilizes at 22% of global land cover and 1.4% of wild pasture. In other words,  just 22% of the land surface of the planet will remain forested.

Alaskan Dude Fall Foliage
Credit: Frank Kovalchek, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Our planet is experiencing a serious global decline in forests. Indeed, over 70 million hectares of forest have been lost during the last two decades — an area greater than France, or about 0.5% of global land area — mostly because of the expansion of agricultural land needed to feed a growing population. The long-term challenge is feeding the human population while still conserving the natural habitat and reversing global deforestation.

To predict future global forest trends, the authors of the study (Chris Pagnutti, Chris T. Bauch, and Madhur Anand) used data on the global use of land encompassing hundreds of years – data provided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other sources. They incorporated the data into a mathematical model designed to capture how transitions in land use, including deforestation and reforestation, are driven by three key factors: agricultural yield, per capita food consumption, and world population change over time.

The historical trends show that food consumption is rising faster than agricultural productivity. Thus, as mentioned above, the global forest cover is predicted to further decline. Unless new technological advances lead to increasing agricultural yields, or strategies to decrease food consumption are introduced over the next century, a switch to global reforestation remains unlikely.

Under an alternative scenario, in which food production and consumption stabilize, reforestation could increase the global forest cover to about 35% — if stabilization occurs within the next 70 years.

The researchers suggest that equal effort should be directed towards finding ways to boost agricultural yield, disseminate those technologies to developing countries, and decrease per capita consumption. Anand, one of the investigators, elaborates, “What is new here is the provision of a set of quantitative guidelines (the mathematical model outputs) that demonstrate exactly how much improvements to agricultural yield or decreases in consumption will affect forest cover dynamics in time.”

Whether or not it will be possible to reverse the decline in forests remains a big question. According to the investigators, the results of their research underscore that “the challenge of feeding a growing population while conserving natural habitat will likely continue for decades to come.”

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