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TORONTO, March 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - To feed a growing population without destroying the world's forests, governments and companies need to harmonise rules on deforestation to stop farms or cattle ranches from moving operations into areas with weak environmental laws, researchers said on Monday.
By 2030, 100 million new hectares of farm land, an area larger than Nigeria, will be needed to grow enough food for the world's growing population, said a study by Stanford University in the United States.
But tighter land or environmental laws in one country can simply push deforestation into other regions, the study found, so legislation and regulations should be streamlined across large areas to balance competing interests for valueble lands.
"This race to the bottom (towards regions with lax laws and enforcement) is one element of what's going on," Yann le Polain de Waroux, a researcher at Stanford University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Large farming firms or cattle ranches also shift their operations to access cheap land or to be closer to their other investments, he said.
The Gran Chaco, an area covering parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay where the study was focused has been losing 6,000 square kilometres (2,317 square miles) of forests anually over the past decade, de Waroux said.
Covering about 1,000,000 square kilometres, the Gran Chaco has a population of about 4 million, most of whom live in Argentina, according to the Organization of American States.
Deforestation rates in the region exceeded those of the Brazilian Amazon for the first time in 2010.
Based on interviews with 83 soybean and cattle farmers, researchers saw significant differences in environmental laws and levels of enforcement between the neighbouring states.
Farming investment has flown into Formosa province in northern Argentina over the past five years, partially to take advantage of lax regulations on forest protection, de Waroux said.
Paraguay has decent laws for preseving forests, but weak enforcement means firms are moving in to chop down the trees to expand agriculture, he said.
"I think there is hope for harmonising standards among companies working in that region and working to respect the regulations that are already in place," the researcher said.
Some large food companies say they are working to prevent products grown on deforested land from entering their supply chains.
Unilever, Walmart and a group of other large retailers in the Consumer Goods Forum, with a combined revenue of $2.8 trillion, say they have committed to zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
It remains unclear if companies will be able to meet these targets, but publicly committing to zero deforetation makes it easier for consumers to hold firms to account on the environment, de Waroux said. (Reporting By Chris Arsenault; Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)