MILAN (Reuters) - The global net loss of forest over 1990-2005 was smaller by a third than earlier estimated but deforestation still threatens environment and food security, the United Nation's food agency said on Wednesday unveiling new satellite-based data.
Net loss, in which forest losses are partially offset by new plantings and natural expansion, totaled 72.9 million hectares (ha) between 1990 and 2005, 32 percent down on the previous estimate of 107.4 million ha, the U.N's Food and Agriculture Organization said.
The net loss was lower thanks to greater expansion in forest areas, the FAO said in a survey based on high-resolution satellite data which differ from earlier FAO findings based on country reports that used a wide variety of sources.
However, deforestation had been rapid with the globe losing on average 4.9 million ha of forest a year, or nearly 10 ha of forest per minute over the 15-year period, the FAO said.
"Deforestation is depriving millions of people of forest goods and services that are crucial to food security, economic well-being and environmental health," Eduardo Rojas-Briales, FAO's assistant director-general for forestry, said in a statement.
The new data also showed the net loss of forests accelerated at the end of the survey period, rising to 6.4 million ha per year between 2000 and 2005 from 4.1 million ha per year between 1990 and 2000.
"The new, satellite-based figures ... offer decision-makers at every level more accurate information and underscore the need for countries and organizations to urgently address and halt the loss of valuable forest ecosystems," Rojas-Briales said.
The rate of world deforestation, mainly driven by conversion of tropical forests to agricultural land, averaged 14.5 million ha per year between 1990 and 2005, in line with previous estimates, the Rome-based agency said.
The world's total forest area was 3.69 billion ha in 2005, or 30 percent of the global land area, the data showed.
Forest losses between 1990 and 2005 were biggest in the tropics, where just under half of the world's forests are located, with net losses in the region averaging 6.9 million ha per year over the period, the survey showed.
The highest rate of conversion of forest land use to other, unspecified, land uses was in South America, followed by Africa.
Asia was the only region to show net gains in forest land-use area thanks to extensive planting in China and several other countries which had outpaced deforestation.