Tree cover transitions and food security in Southeast Asia

Trees provide a host of products and services, allowing forest-edge communities to be food-sufficient (through trade) without cutting down forests. A study of food security aspects of land-use in four configurations of agriculture, forest and agroforestry, based on landscape examples in Southeast Asia, has demonstrated a transition from local production sufficiency to market-based livelihood strategies. This is according to van Noordwijk et al who recently published a review in Global Food Security. Income security is the primary driver of food security, even in remote places, the authors add.

5570353623_bbc5cbbf6c_oTrees provide a multitude of products, including resins and fruits, some of which are staple foods. As the major providers of environmental services, trees and forests also support local livelihoods, agricultural production and food security. Food security implies a focus on quality and diversity of food, beyond calorific quantity, and on choices to adjust diets for the expected population size and welfare targets. On the supply side it requires the closing of both yield and efficiency gaps, where Yield Gaps are defined as the difference between actual and potential yield, and Efficiency Gaps are defined as the difference between actual and potential resource use efficiency.

Farmers may not always internalise the concept of environmental costs and, basing their decisions on what is economically rational, may select technically inefficient ways of closing yield gaps. Hence, increasing food security by reducing input prices has downside risks for environmental services. Yet, the Borlaug hypothesis expects that by reducing yield gaps, agricultural intensification contributes to reduced pressure (‘land sparing’) on remaining forests. There thus may be a trade-off between the local environmental costs of intensification versus the opportunities it provides to conserve forests elsewhere.

Four overarching goals have been agreed for international agricultural research, with increased rural income, increased food production and enhanced food security as a group aimed at continuing current developmental trends, while goal four, improved natural resource management requires an escape from the trade-off with the first group. Focusing on food supply alone may cross planetary boundaries and lead to a ‘collapse’ scenario as far as the environment is concerned. Simultaneous closing of yield and efficiency gaps may allow a recovery of environmental services alongside modest increases in food supply. The single goal of food security thus needs to be reframed as an imperative to navigate tradeoffs among food supply and environmental services, with yield and efficiency gaps as proxies.

There are four recognizable configurations of forest, agroforestry and agriculture in landscapes. These differ in actual land cover but also in institutional aspects of forest versus agricultural categories of land, and in the way livelihoods and food security are perceived. They are:

  • Configuration I: Swidden/fallow rotations (shifting cultivation), where Agriculture and Forestry are inseparable aspects of a land-use system that provides the four objectives simultaneously.
  • Configuration II: Short fallow rotations and permanent agriculture interacting with forests, where Agriculture and Forestry are segregated parts of a landscape, both providing the four objectives.
  • Configuration III: Agriculture and Forests are connected through intermediary Agroforestry land use, and the four objectives are jointly provided.
  • Configuration IV: where Forestry facilitates and supports Agroforestry and Agriculture landscapes to provide the four objectives.

Four case studies, representing the four configurations, were reviewed from Southeast Asia:

  • Configuration I: Katingan Rattan Gardens, Kalimantan, Indonesia
  • Configuration II: Mae Chaem, montane mainland, in Northern Thailand
  • Configuration III: Rubber Agroforests in Jambi province, Sumatra, Indonesia
  • Configuration IV: Permanent Agriculture in the Dieng Plateau of Java, Indonesia

Human population density; human development indices; land allocated to forest, agroforest and tree crops, rice paddies, crops, ‘other’ land, and settlement were compared. Key research questions were:

  • What does food security mean to local people in this context?
  • What roles do trees and forests play in food security?
  • How are productivity growth and environmental services related?

The configurations are also compared for lessons learnt and emergence of new perspectives and issues that are researchable, urgent and interesting. It was found that although the dual objectives of food security and environmental services appear to be in conflict, they can be achieved jointly. It is imperative though that farmers have the opportunity to outsource staple food through local markets that may interact with national and global ones.

Other findings:

  • Tree cover and forest-based biodiversity are partially correlated, but diverge where intensive near-monocultural tree crops and plantation forestry emerge.
  • Tree diversity may support nutritional diversity, especially of vulnerable age groups.
  • In terms of environmental impacts the hydrological consequences of land cover change, and associated erosion/sedimentation, are likely to be the most immediately relevant for local livelihoods and food production, but biodiversity is the most compelling aspect in terms of loss of natural capital with irreversible consequences.

Some recommendations:

  • The largely qualitative discussion provided here can be used to construct and test quantitative hypotheses.
  • Further analysis is needed to test correlations that have emerged from similar studies, for example positive correlations between child nutrition and landscape-level tree cover.
  • Further quantification of the multiple dimensions of land-use intensification is needed to clarify choices for society at large and to fine-tune national policies that deal with food security and environmental services at a different level from the farmers focussed on in this study.

The study demonstrated an overall transition from local sufficiency of production, to market-based livelihood strategies where income security is the primary driver of food security, even in remote places. In parts of this transition, forests and agriculture are seen as opposites, but elsewhere the intermediate tree-cover land uses (agroforestry) offer integrated ‘land sharing’ options to the double objectives of food security and environmental services.

Read the full paper here.

van Noordwijk, M., et al., Tree cover transitions and food security in Southeast Asia. Global Food Security (2014),

Climate change adaptation and mitigation, which considers how forests, trees and agroforestry can play a role in climate change mitigation and also how they can help people adapt to climate change  is a key focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner.'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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