Tropical deforestation continues at alarming rates with profound impacts on ecosystems, climate, and livelihoods, prompting renewed commitments to tackle it. Although it is well established that agriculture is a dominant driver of deforestation, the rates and mechanisms involved remain disputed and often lack a clear evidence base.

The authors synthesize the best available pantropical evidence to provide clarity on how exactly agriculture drives deforestation. Although most deforestation (90 to 99%) across the tropics between 2011 to 2015 was driven by agriculture, only 45 to 65% of deforested land became productive agriculture within a few years. Therefore, ending deforestation likely requires combining measures to create deforestation-free supply chains with landscape governance interventions.

This review points to three key areas where a stronger evidence base would advance global efforts to curb agriculture-driven deforestation:

  1. Consistent pantropical data on deforestation trends are lacking. This limits our ability to assess overall progress on reducing deforestation and account for leakage across regions.
  2. With the exception of soy and oil palm the attribution of deforestation to forest risk commodities is often based on coarse-grained agricultural
    statistics, outdated or modeled maps, or local case studies.
  3. Uncertainties are greatest in dry and seasonal tropics and across the
    African continent in particular.

This assessment highlights that although public and private policies promoting deforestation-free international supply chains have a critical role to play, their ability to reduce deforestation on the ground is fundamentally limited. One-third to one-half of agriculture-driven deforestation does not result in actively managed agricultural land.

Moreover, the majority — approximately three-quarters — of the expansion of agriculture into forests is driven by domestic demand in producer countries, especially for beef, cereals, and much of the deforestation across the African continent. These data suggest that the potential for international supply chain measures to help reduce tropical deforestation is more likely to be achieved through interventions in deforestation risk areas that focus on strengthening sustainable rural development and territorial governance.