04/08/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

You Can't Eat Your Cake and Have the Forest Too -- or Can You?

Every unique ecosystem provides significant economic, social, cultural, aesthetic and intrinsic values to humanity.

But forests occupy a special class in themselves. The best estimates are that some 80 percent of all biodiversity--all life on Earth--is tied to forests. Wherever they occur, forests act very much like hydraulic pumps, mediating the flow of water into soils or back in the atmosphere, helping to lessen extreme variations in temperature and rainfall patterns.

These are among the reasons why the loss to deforestation of an area the size of Manhattan Island every four hours inflicts damage far beyond the shrinking borders of the world's forests themselves.

Forests deliver valuable environmental services and also have huge potential for providing sustainable economic benefits. Unfortunately, forested lands are not yet valued for the ecosystem services they provide.

Rather, it is the land and soils that forests occupy that are coveted for their capacity to generate quick economic returns as forests make way for global commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef. Until we change the way forests are used to derive economic benefits, deforestation will continue to drive species to extinction 1,000 times faster than the norm, and will continue adding a heavy load of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, contributing to global warming and to the tendency toward increasingly extreme weather events.

Tropical deforestation and forest degradation have become the second largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions--some 12 percent in total--roughly equivalent to what every car, truck, train and airplane combined dump into the atmosphere.

Globally, we lose over 50,000 square miles of forest each year, an area roughly the size of Louisiana or Greece. Despite ongoing efforts, many quite successful at the local scale, we need to do a better job of finding ways to generate wealth and feed a growing human population without undermining the ecological foundation that has enabled our species to become the dominant force over the entire planet.

The commodities' footprint

Understanding what drives deforestation is not rocket science. It's basic economics. Woefully undervalued woodlands are giving way to agricultural use, estimated to be responsible for 80 percent of deforestation worldwide. Much of the pressure on standing forests comes from a very small group of products or commodities: soy, palm oil, beef, pulp, and paper. Uncertainty over land titles, lack of policy incentives, and weak governance make forests an attractive target for conversion across the developing world. Growing populations and a rising middle class in these emerging economies are further fueling the demand for beef, soy, palm oil and other commodities at unprecedented rates.

The financial origins of this looming environmental disaster require, likewise, a financial strategy in response. Governments, private sector entities, civil society, and multilateral funding organizations including the Global Environment Facility (GEF), are working together to enhance the sustainability of agricultural commodity supply chains. Voluntary programs such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef, and the Roundtable on Responsible Soy have attracted the active participation of important corporate players such as retail giant Walmart and Wilmar, a company responsible for nearly half of the world's palm oil production. The aim is to create market-based incentives for producers, processors and retailers to adopt management practices that adhere to social and environmental standards.

Progress has been slow. None of the high-impact commodities are close to the threshold of full sustainability. Only 2 percent of the 250 million tons of soy produced every year are being certified sustainable. Palm oil certification has plateaued at 13 percent of total production due, in part to a fragmented production system. For example, 40 percent of all palm oil comes from small holders with limited capacity to improve production techniques without outside technical and financial support.

For commodities to reach the market without a significant deforestation footprint, we need to transition from niche markets to massive mainstreaming of sustainable practices. One promising route is for individual companies or sectors to start taking responsibility for their own supply footprints. Progressive elements of the private sector such as the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of over 400 retailers, manufacturers, service providers and other stakeholders, have brought together such corporate giants as Coca-Cola, General Mills, Mondelez, and Nestle and generated a range of initiatives aimed at promoting responsible sourcing, sustainability, and zero-deforestation practices.

I believe that a successful approach must simultaneously address policy and governance issues in producer countries, support the uptake of improved production techniques, and reinforce the steps being taken by key commodity supply chain actors.

Consumers can have a huge effect on whether these strategies work. You can't get away from palm oil. It is everywhere in the aisles of your supermarket--in your ice cream, margarine, cookies and cakes. But you can help keep palm oil from damaging the forest. When buying products with heavy forest footprints, such as those containing palm oil, as well as coffee and chocolate, be attentive to labels such as the RSPO, Rainforest Alliance and others. If you can't find certified products, reach out to your store's manager and ask why they aren't sourcing from companies and brands that are doing the right thing. Keeping the pressure up will be good for you and better still for the planet.