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Seymour: Preserve forests in the name of food security

Preserving international forests, providing food security and addressing issues of global climate change will require a coordinated effort, Frances Seymour told an audience at N.C. State University for the 2013 Borlaug Lecture.

Seymour, former director of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia and a long-time forestry advocate, described efforts to save international forests and how the direction of those efforts has changed over the years.

Before the lecture, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences entomologist Dr. Fred Gould received the Borlaug Excellence in Service to Society and the Environment Award. The award is given in conjunction with the lecture to an N.C. State faculty member who demonstrates exemplary service to the environment and society in academics, research or service through enhancing global practices, new technologies and impact on students or global communities.

Gould, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Entomology, thanked CALS and the Entomology Department for encouraging a spirit of collegiality. “Norman Borlaug was an incredible person who had a passion for agriculture and for improving the plight of farmers. He also realized that he relied on a lot of other people to develop dwarf wheat,” he said.

Fred Gould receiving award
Fred Gould, center, received the Borlaug Award. He is pictured with CALS Dean Richard Linton, right, and CNR Dean Mary Watzin.

Gould also thanked N.C. State Provost Warwick Arden for developing the “cluster hire” approach to hiring faculty to work across disciplines, including a cluster in genetic engineering and society.

In her lecture, Seymour said that for many years, developed countries were interested in preserving tropical and rain forests, but developing countries were often skeptical, seeing such efforts as attacks their own land sovereignty.

In 2005, there was a new sense of interest in preserving forests in the name of controlling global climate change, Seymour said, generating excitement among those working in what she described as “forestry world.” For the first time, developing countries were the ones who put the issue of forest preservation on the table.

Under the REDD initiative – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation –  developing countries would be paid to preserve forests. Seymour said the formula seemed like a win-win at the time – developing countries would get much-needed dollars for development, and developed countries would have an affordable way to pay for forest preservation.  However, implementation of this initiative has been more complicated than first expected with complex economic, political and social factors involved.

Seymour noted that food security is an important issue in developing countries, though some well-intentioned efforts to improve food security have resulted in deforestation and environmental damage. One example was Indonesia’s “million hectare” project to clear land for planting 1 million hectares of rice. But soils in the peat swamp forests of Borneo were not suitable for rice production. Peat is a deep soil that holds carbon above and even more below ground.

“When a peat forest is cleared and burned, catastrophic forest fires can occur. Peat swamp forests will continue to burn, giving off carbon emissions,” Seymour said.

Biofuels development also has contributed to deforestation and food insecurity. In Malaysia and Indonesia, peat swamps were also drained to plant oil palms for biodiesel fuel.

A better way of looking at international forests is to consider the potential of the forests themselves to address food security and provide income for people who live near the forests, Seymour said.  “Forests contribute to the livelihood of people around the world,” she said. “Fruits, nuts and leaves provide micronutrients, and forests offer opportunities for hunting as well. Bush meat can provide up to 80 percent of protein for indigenous people.”

In addition to food itself, people derive income from forests, which they can use purchase to food, Seymour said. Communities can derive up to a fifth of their income from forests, she said.

Seymour argued that deforestation is not necessary to feed people. “It is an outdated myth that poor people are the cause of deforestation,” she said. “Commercial agriculture is the main cause of deforestation. Local people do a better job of protecting forests than the government.

“Tropical forests are destroyed in the name of food security,” she said. “Forests contribute to food security, but forests don’t have a place at the table yet.”

The bottom line, Seymour said, is that it is difficult to make a case to developing countries for protecting forests in the name of global climate change. A much better argument can be made for the importance of forests in providing for food security and protection from natural disasters.

“Reconciling forest, food security and climate change is a huge commodity problem.  We have to bridge many different political agendas,” Seymour said.

To learn more about the Borlaug Lecture, past speakers and past award winners, visit the website:

-N. Hampton