New paper: synthesis of biodiversity drivers in Central Romania

By Joern Fischer

There is only a handful of publications still in the pipeline for our project on sustainable development in Central Romania — timely indeed, since funding finishes at the end of 2015! Today I’d like to briefly highlight a new paper that takes a first stab at synthesising what we’ve learnt in five years of research. This paper just came out in the new journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, which is published by the Ecological Society of America together with the Ecological Society of China. The paper is led by Ine Dorresteijn, and synthesises drivers of biodiversity.

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What causes Transylvania’s exceptional biodiversity? We came up with seven underlying drivers or processes. While these are specific to Transylvania, it seems likely that there are parallels to other traditional farming landscapes elsewhere.

1. Similar proportions of three main land-use types support a rich regional species pool. It is relatively well-known that the effects of area loss and isolation start to have severely negative synergistic effects on biodiversity when the proportion of a given land cover type is low. Some have argued around 30% is good, and below that, things start to increasingly fall apart. If that is so, this is a potential explanation for why biodiversity is so high in Transylvania — there is about 30% of forest cover, as well as about 30% of grassland; plus another approximately 30% of arable land (including field margins). So, whether you’re a forest species, a grassland species, or a species adapted to agriculture, there’s likely to be enough space for you in Transylvania.

2. Landscape complementation and supplementation facilitate the persistence of species outside their core habitat. Often, land covers in Transylvania are juxtaposed in ways that species can use more than one kind of land cover. For example, bears primarily inhabit forest, but they also come out and forage in the pastures (e.g. for ant larvae, a protein source). Similarly, some butterflies lay their eggs in grassland, but also forage in the arable mosaic; and woodpeckers move been forests and wood pastures.

3. Gradients of woody vegetation cover provide important structural diversity. Woody vegetation in farmland is generally believed to be good for biodiversity. And for many species, that’s true, and they benefit from the trees and shrubs retained throughout Transylvanian farmland. But for other species, it’s entirely treeless, open grasslands that constitute high quality habitat. Luckily, those species also find their place in Transylvania — there’s a whole gradient of woody vegetation present throughout the farming mosaic, from entirely devoid of trees and shrubs, to quite a bit of structural complexity. This mix means many different kinds of species can use the landscape.

4. Gradients in land-cover heterogeneity provide a diversity of niches. Structural complexity (trees and shrubs) is one important (vertical) feature of landscapes — another is the spatial variability of land covers, or heterogeneity. Here, too, many species benefit from the high variability in many locations, especially in the arable mosaic — small fields with distinctly different margins are useful for many species. But again, the opposite is also present, namely large areas of relatively homogenous land cover. This is the case for some forest patches, for example, and some pastures. Species that need a lot of space of “the one thing” can use such more homogenous areas.

5. Traditional land-use practices underpin landscape heterogeneity, traditional landscape elements, and human–carnivore coexistence. The ecological and land cover patterns that we see have resulted from traditional land use practices — including moving hay meadows by hand, ploughing fields by horse, and using guarding dogs to defend livestock against bears and wolves. To maintain the land cover pattern thus requires thinking about whether and how these traditional practices can be maintained.

6. Top-down predator regulation may foster biodiversity in traditional farming landscapes in some instances. Central Romania is a cultural landscape — but it’s also a wild landscape with bears and wolves. While humans structure the ecosystem in predictable ways, top carnivores also have retained an important influence. For example, they influence the kinds of herbivores (red deer vs. roe deer) that are found in different parts of the landscape; which in turn, is likely to influence vegetation dynamics.

7. Cultural ties between humans and nature support biodiversity conservation. Many Transylvanians still know their ecosystems very well, including the benefits and dis-benefits. This knowledge is deeply embedded in Transylvanian culture. Smallholder farming to many people is not just a job, but a “good” way of being — an ethic of working the land prevails among many local villagers. Maintaining biodiversity requires an understanding of how people are linked to the natural environment. Otherwise, well-intentioned policy measures (such as subsidies) may actually backfire in the long run.

These drivers range from proximal to more ultimate, from tangible towards fuzzy, and from more ecological to more social. The paper analyses in some more detail how this understanding can inform biodiversity conservation — it’s open access, and you can download it here.


Photo blog on sustainability

Guest post by Anne Dombrowski

My m² Earth is a collaborative photo project on local aspects of global change within our everyday life. The project invites you and your colleagues to upload own photographs to an online-blog and comment on their thematic and visual messages. The technical professionality of the submitted images is not important but the photographer’s personal view. Your motifs can focus on the complete range of phenomena, from the destruction of environment or a loss of biodiversity to positive aspects such as urban gardening or energy-efficient housing. The results will be presented during the 2. German Future Earth Summit (28./29. January 2016).

The project was initiated by the Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems (IRI THESys) at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, in cooperation with the German Committee Future Earth.

We need your help: survey on food security and biodiversity conservation

We are currently working on the development of a global theory that explains which characteristics of social-ecological systems benefit both biodiversity conservation and food security. Among other project components, we have designed a questionnaire that asks experts to share their insights on a specific landscape that they understand well. We need as many qualified people as possible to fill out this questionnaire – so please complete it and share this blog post widely within relevant networks!

What makes a landscape biologically diverse and its people food secure? We want to answer this question by collecting social-ecological characteristics of farming landscapes through this questionnaire (Photo by Neil Collier on Flores/Indonesia).

What makes a landscape biologically diverse and its people food secure? We want to answer this question by collecting social-ecological characteristics of farming landscapes through this questionnaire (Photo by Neil Collier on Flores/Indonesia).

What is covered by the questionnaire?

The questionnaire consists of four main sections. All of them require the person completing it to think of one specific focal landscape that they are familiar with. The first section asks for a short characterisation of the focal landscape and for a self-assessment of the respondent’s expertise in relation to that landscape. The second section covers the degree of food insecurity in the focal landscape. The third section asks about biodiversity values and conservation issues. The final section covers a wide range of social-ecological system characteristics of the focal landscape.

Who can complete the questionnaire?

Everybody who knows a landscape well and is familiar with issues related to food security and/or biodiversity conservation in that very same landscape can complete the questionnaire. It is not necessary to be an academic or a researcher, but it is important to have relevant local expertise (e.g. as a conservation practitioner, development agent, or NGO worker).

What do we mean by a “landscape”?

We define a landscape as an area measuring tens to thousands of square kilometres, which is characterised by repeated patterns of settlements and different land use types (e.g. fields, pastures, forests). Usually, a landscape is characterised by some unifying features. Such features could be biophysical characteristics (e.g. the landscape could be a particular mountain range or a river delta) but also socio-political characteristics (e.g. a shared history, administrative unit, or ethnic composition). The only two requirements that we have for such landscapes are (1) that the main land use should be some sort of farming (agriculture or livestock grazing); and (2) that its inhabitants should be at least potentially food insecure. We appreciate that urban areas are interesting, and that food systems in wealthy nations also require attention – but our focus is primarily on rural areas in economically less developed countries.

What can you do?

1) Fill in the questionnaire, using the link below.

2) Widely distribute the questionnaire to your friends and colleagues, and through any relevant networks you might be aware of. Feel free to re-blog this post, or share it any other way you like!

Ready to go?

The questionnaire can be found here:
and the password (“TAN/Losung”) is:

The questionnaire comprises a total of 85 questions. Based on our experience, the expected time to complete it is between 25 and 35 minutes.

We really appreciate your support and are looking forward to being able to present our findings on the blog here (hopefully next year). The more people help to distribute this, and fill it out, the more useful it will be! Thank you!

Inner change for sustainability: Science, worldviews and faith.

By Chris Ives

The normative position of sustainability science has been well accepted for a while now. As sustainability scientists, the way we define problems and the work we do to promote justice and environmental integrity is based on strong beliefs about how the world ought to be and what a good future looks like. It’s recognised that these normative goals do not come from our science, but that our science can be useful to inform how to achieve these goals. Typically, we don’t spend very much time arguing about why sustainability is a good thing; we take this as a given and get on with our research. However, you only need to talk with a few people in the street to realise that not everyone shares these same normative goals and values. In the Leverage Points project, we’re most concerned with understanding and transforming the goals and intents of systems to bring about positive change for sustainability. In order to do this, I believe the time has come for sustainability science to engage more deeply and explicitly with the various belief systems that are at the heart of individuals and communities. It is these belief systems that provide the power to either activate or disregard the science that we hope will inform action.

Joern’s recent blog post highlighted the importance of transforming inner and outer worlds in order to transform society towards sustainability. I think our inner worlds have been largely neglected in sustainability discourse. I recently came across research by Annick Hedlund-de Witt on worldviews – the lenses through which we comprehend and interpret the world. What I really liked about this work was the way it broke down our ‘inner worlds’ into five discrete components:

  1. Ontology: a perspective on the nature of reality, often enriched with a cosmogony. What is the nature of reality? What is nature? How did the universe come about? If there is such thing as the divine–what or who is it, and how is it related to the universe?
  2. Epistemology: a perspective on how knowledge of reality can become about. How can we know what is real? How can we gain knowledge of ourselves and the world? What is valid knowledge, and what is not?
  3. Axiology: a perspective on what a ‘good life’ is, in terms of morals and quality of life, ethical and aesthetic values. What is a good life? What kind of life has quality and gives fulfillment? What are our most cherished ethical and aesthetic values? What is life all about?
  4. Anthropology: a perspective on who the human being is and what his/her role and position is in the universe. Who or what is the human being? What is the nature of the human being? What is his/her role and purpose in existence?
  5. Societal vision: a perspective on how society should be organized and how societal problems and issues should be addressed. How should we organize our society? How should we address societal problems and issues?

 Together, these five components comprise different worldviews. And worldviews have a very powerful influence on how we interpret information and how we behave. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Durham explored different ‘narratives’ that fed into the public debate about nanotechology. They found that the “scientific” debate was actually a proxy for deeper philosophical views about nature and the world. These narratives included seeing nature as ‘Pandora’s box’ (risk of nature’s revenge), seeing nature as a sacred entity that should not be messed with, or viewing the world in terms of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. It was these stories that influenced most dramatically the public’s attitudes towards nanotechnology. This shows that our worldviews and broader narratives filter and interpret the scientific information we’re presented with.

From this point some key questions come to mind, such as how are these worldviews shaped? Which aspects of different worldviews are more or less compatible with sustainability? And how can they be influenced? Clearly the answers to these questions lie (in part) in a deeper engagement with value and belief systems, in particular the fields spirituality, religion and faith. The spiritual dimension of our lives is a significant part of being human yet has been largely neglected in sustainability research. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of the world’s population identifies with some kind of religious belief system. Joern Fischer and colleagues wrote in 2012 that “[r]eligion can provide metaphorical or experiential explanations for the underlying causes of unsustainable human behaviour”. I agree with this, but would add that religion also contributes perspectives on what a good and purposeful life consists of, what humanity’s relationship with the natural world ought to be, and what is of ultimate value. It also connects these ‘ideas’ to deeper concepts such as faith, hope and love that provide greater meaning and motivation to people’s lives.

Further, if indeed changing our ‘inner worlds’ is what we need, then religious traditions have much to offer. I see there being two aspects to changing our ‘inner worlds’: (i) transforming how we want to live (linked to how the world should be), and (ii) transforming how we live. We typically focus on the first aspect: “if only people would start caring more about other people or the planet and less about themselves then we wouldn’t be in this mess”. However, wanting to live differently is only part of the story – I might want to eat more healthily but at the end of a long day at work I can find myself ordering a pizza instead of making a salad for dinner. Religious traditions have focused strongly on the processes of inner (and outer) transformation, through spiritual disciplines and practices. I think sustainability science would do well to engage more strongly with these.

Recently some colleagues and I have been reading through Pope Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic Church on the present ecological crisis, “On care for our common home”. Given Christianity is the largest religion in the world, I thought it is worthwhile providing a summary of its main messages, how it connects to ideas of global sustainability transformation and what worldview it represents. I’ll outline these in a coming blog, so stay tuned…

The fatal attraction of technocratic solutions and techno-fixes

By Joern Fischer

In the 1980s, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich famously had a bet about whether resource scarcity would lead to the demise of humanity. In that debate, Julian Simon embodied technological optimism, essentially negating planetary boundaries, and firmly believing that humanity would solve whichever problems emerge through new solutions and technologies. Since then, technological optimism subsided for a while – but a slightly different flavor of it appears to be re-emerging at the moment.

Scientific culture has changed, to the point that especially the supposedly “high end” of science is now fatally attracted to technocratic solutions and techno-fixes. Some of the prominent ideas currently suggesting that more at no cost is both feasible and desirable include sustainable intensification, decoupling of growth from environmental impact, and an “ecomodernist” vision for the world. These ideas are not new, but currently re-surging in popularity, it seems to me.

All of these strategies have in common that they neglect issues of power, politics, and justice. Who uses technology, who benefits from it, and who perhaps doesn’t, is usually ignored in these framings. Moreover, technocratic solutions and techno-fixes all tell the comforting story of “no change is needed”. In a world where policy-relevance, media coverage, and publications in Science and Nature are what makes you a “successful scientist”, technocratic solutions and techno-fixes thus are fatally attractive to scientists.

From a leverage points perspective, these framings argue that major changes in outcomes are possible without changes to the intent assigned to our systems. We can continue to design our systems around endless material growth, and yet achieve happiness and justice for all beings.

This new wave of technically strong, but philosophically weak, science is dangerous because it distracts us from the biggest challenge we face this century – turning around the various unsustainable trends that characterize the Great Acceleration.

There is no need to choose between living back in the trees versus joining the cult of technological optimism. As in so many of these situations, we can pursue technical solutions where possible, just and meaningful, but in addition to working on other challenges – not instead. So far, few scientists have argued that their technological solutions ought to be pursued instead of other changes (e.g. in values or dominant economic systems) – but more recently, some have actually gone that far.

We’re thus on a slippery slope from neat science to careless technological optimism. Many concepts can take us either way, and it’s up to us to use them wisely: Sustainable intensification can be about justice and about nourishing the poor; or it can be about satisfying humanity’s growing hunger for meat. Ecosystem services can be a means of finding out about people’s connectedness with nature, or it can be a tool to commodify life on Earth. De-coupling of economic growth and environmental destruction would be great, but is rare in practice. Economic activity is likely to contribute to human well-being in poor countries, but as a goal above others, has become far less meaningful in wealthy settings.

Framings that tell us it’s all one, and none of the other, usually lack nuance. With that in mind, we can find a place to build technological improvements into a vision for a sustainable future – but not instead of tackling the root causes of un-sustainability, but in addition to it. Without an inherently stable foundation – reflected in our value, social and economic systems – technocratic thinking and techno-fixes may buy us time, but not sustainability.

Sustainability: connecting inner and outer worlds

By Joern Fischer

We’ve recently commenced work on the project “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation“. This is based on Meadows’ idea that to bring about major changes, we have to look at the intent created for or assigned to a given system. On this basis, one of the deep leverage points we plan to look at is the connection between people and nature.

It struck me today that, arguably, we could have gone one level deeper. One question I have recently pondered is whether we can really transform the world at all, if we don’t even manage to transform ourselves. In other words, can there be transformation in our outer world without transformation in our inner worlds?

My interim analysis is that the answer is “only partly”. I suspect it’s a bit like with financial incentives for conservation … they can buy us time. But ultimately, they are based on the same premises underpinning unsustainable behaviour in the first place (lack of human-environment connection and primarily a financial outlook on the world) — so I doubt that they should be our conservation tool of choice in the long term.

I think at a deeper level the same is true for transformation of our inner and outer worlds. Aggressive campaigning may take us a few steps towards sustainability — but ultimately, it can’t be the solution. The anger and frustration in such campaigning somehow embody substantial overlap in their emotional constitution with the violent greed inherent to many fundamental drivers underpinning un-sustainability. The nature of the intent of such “systems” of action is somehow similar, in that it is competitive and exclusive, rather than tolerant and caring. Assuming that is true, then, transformation of the outer world might well benefit from a greater share of humanity attempting to transform their inner worlds.

While this could be extremely interesting, I have seen very little research on this topic, in a sustainability context. Is such “ultimate” sustainability science not part of sustainability science’s agenda? Or has it just not been explored yet? (Or has it been explored, and I just don’t know about it? Also possible!)

[ PS: Thanks to the guy who nearly ran me over on a bike today for prompting me to write this blog post. He made me so angry that I in fact got angry with myself for getting angry. Which suggested to me that there’s a lot of un-fulfilled potential for inner transformation on my behalf  … which made me think about sustainability and this blog post! I’m guessing he won’t read my thank you note … ]

New paper: Reviving wood-pastures for biodiversity and people: A case study from western Estonia

It has been a while since wood-pastures last featured in this blog, so I would like to take the opportunity to present our latest paper (Roellig et al. 2015) on this topic.


All over Europe, wood-pastures are facing problems with their support under the European Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) e.g. in Sweden (Jakobsson & Lindborg 2015) and Romania (Hartel et al. 2013). In Estonia, wood-pastures are not eligible for Single Area Payments (SAP) due to their high tree density. To stop the abandonment of wood-pastures, the Estonian government has implemented two different schemes of financial support for wood-pastures (together with other semi-natural habitats). In an agri-environmental scheme (AES) under the second pillar of the CAP, farmers get support for managing their wood-pastures. However as a lot of wood-pastures are already abandoned or grazed only very lightly, a second scheme using only national funds supports the restoration of semi-natural habitats, which includes opening up wood-pastures, fencing and in some cases even purchasing livestock.

In this study, our first goal was to look at the structure of wood-pastures and the effects of the schemes. We found that almost all restored wood-pastures tend to be similar to old wood-pastures. The farmers are doing a good job to fulfill guidelines and open up their pastures up to have a balance of canopy cover and open grassy patches. In contrast, abandoned wood-pastures are similar to forest in their structure, even after only five years of abandonment. Without consistent management, Estonian wood-pastures rapidly lose their semi-open character.

Our second goal was to look at the motivations of farmers to manage or restore wood-pastures. We identified several types of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, and we defined three groups of farmers based on their combinations of motivations. Almost all the interviewed farmers were dependent on the financial support to manage their wood-pasture and would probably not have started to restore their wood-pasture without it. On the other hand, most farmers had a clear passion for managing their land and were proud of maintaining their wood-pastures following local traditions. Some told about the landscapes in their childhood, other just felt responsible to keep pastures “in order”. One groups of farmers we named “profitable stewards” because they tried to connect profitable farming with ecological guidelines and traditional management of the landscapes. Also animal health and biodiversity played a role in the motivations. Most farmers believed their animals thrive better in a more “natural” environment. They gave less medication and the cows often give birth outside. A lot of farmers were really proud of hosting a lot of different species – from elks and badger to special trees and orchids.

In general, supporting wood-pastures in Estonia means not only supporting biodiversity due to preserving semi-open habitats, but also keeping a tradition alive, which might otherwise disappear.

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I loved the time in Estonia, seeing all this lovely wood-pastures (see pictures) and meeting all the farmers doing a great job. They deserve our respect for actively conserving these beautiful habitats.



If you are interested in the topic of wood pastures, I would like to mention two important events coming up:

  1. A policy seminar in Brussels this November: “Europe’s wood pastures: condemned to a slow death by the CAP? A test case for EU agriculture and biodiversity policy”. With examples from EU member states: Romania – Tibor HARTEL, Sapientia University Cluj Napoca and Pogány-havas Association, Sweden – Peter EINARSSON, Farmer and Swedish Society for Nature Conservation and Spain – Álvaro PICARDO, Technical Advisor to General Director in Natural Environment, Regional Government of Castilla y León (17 November 2015, 14.30-16.30, room ASP 3E2, European Parliament, Brussels), Deadline to register on the 10th of November
  1. A conference on wood-pastures (or silvopastoral systems) in Portugal next year. Themes and key note speaker you can find here. Deadline for submitting abstracts is the 30th of November.


Hartel T.R., Dorresteijn I., Klein C., Máthé O., Moga C.I., Öllerer K., Roellig M., von Wehrden H., & Fischer J. (2013) Wood-pastures in a traditional rural region of Eastern Europe: Characteristics, management and status. Biological Conservation, 166, 267–275.

Jakobsson S. & Lindborg R. (2015) Governing nature by numbers — EU subsidy regulations do not capture the unique values of woody pastures. Biological Conservation, 191, 1–9.

Roellig M., Sutcliffe L.M.E., Sammul M., von Wehrden H., Newig J., & Fischer J. (2015) Reviving wood-pastures for biodiversity and people: A case study from western Estonia. Ambio, DOI: 10.1007/s13280-015-0719-8.

Towards better interpretation of land sparing/sharing studies

Introductory note by Joern: The following guest post is by Ben Phalan from the University of Cambridge. Ben and I have not always agreed on things related to land sparing/sharing — but as his post shows, there is quite a bit we do agree on. Comments welcome!

Joern has kindly given me the opportunity to respond to his recent blog post, calling for editors, reviewers and authors to ‘move on’ from land sparing. There’s lots I agree with Joern about, but also quite a few details where we differ. I thought the most productive way to respond would be to focus primarily on what we agree on.

I too am concerned with the way in which questions of land sparing and sharing have come to be seen by some as a simplistic, black-and-white debate*. It was never my intention for the framework to be interpreted in that way, and, like Joern, I find it frustrating and disappointing when it is.

Part of the issue, I think, is that different people take up different interpretations of what questions these studies address. As conservationists or sustainability scientists, we’re all fundamentally interested in how we can live more sustainably on the planet, but that is not the question addressed by studies on the potential consequences of sparing or sharing. Instead, what those studies aim to shed light on are the biophysical relationships between two important sets of things that we want land to sustain – biodiversity and food production.

Understanding those relationships in detail does not give a complete or final answer to the question of how land should be allocated – how could it? – but it does give us some pretty useful information on the possible consequences of different production scenarios for populations of wild species.

Nobody should use the results of a biodiversity/production trade-off to draw inferences about social justice, food security, or the role of agribusiness. Those are important issues, and they deserve consideration in their own right, but they are outside the scope of a biophysical analysis. Unfortunately, some observers have tried to fit questions about sparing/sharing into pre-existing frames. For example, should we have agroecology or industrial monocultures? Should farming be done by smallholders or corporations? Should we eat organic food or GM? I hope it is obvious to anyone reading this blog that the answers to such questions are not black and white, and nor are they all versions of the same question. We can (and do) have smallholder-managed monocultures, corporations using agroecological insights, and intensively-managed fields of organic crops with little biodiversity.

What I think we researchers need to do instead is to embrace the cognitive dissonance that these apparent contradictions bring us, and to try and work out what the consequences of different choices would be, for the different things that people care about. How land is used to produce food, and what the consequences of that might be for other species, are important parts of that conversation, but not the only parts.

We need to integrate findings from different disciplines, not reject them because of simplistic preconceptions. For example, some assume that land sparing would inevitably involve converting small peasant farms to large industrial farms, but social research makes clear that such an approach would likely have enormous negative social impacts, and could even worsen food insecurity. So, in contexts with smallholders where the data suggest land sparing is desirable from a conservation perspective, let’s look for ways of making it happen that support those smallholders, and which curtail the power of agribusinesses to acquire land and clear habitats.

We live in a world with many trade-offs, but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of scope for synergies too. My belief is that we can make progress on overcoming those trade-offs only if we first strive to understand them. That will put us in a better position to find synergistic actions that could reduce the ecological impacts of farming in ways which are socially just.

I and Joern agree that we should not take for granted that global food production must inevitably increase by some predetermined amount. A consistent finding in sparing/sharing studies is that the more production increases, the greater an impact it will have on wild species. (It’s important to remember that land sparing isn’t about producing more than land sharing. It’s about sparing more.)

Politically, among the most important things we can do to reduce the ecological impact of the food system is to limit the need to produce more food, by actions such as reducing food waste, eating less meat, cutting subsidies for crop-based biofuels, improving family planning, and redistributing food more fairly. As researchers, we can develop scenarios where differing levels of progress are made on these challenges, but we’ll still need to consider scenarios where global food production increases substantially, not because we want to, but because it’s likely.

Using land for farming continues to be one of the most important ways in which we alter the biosphere, and so building a picture of how different ways of producing food affect biodiversity is an essential task for conservationists. Measuring species’ population-level responses to increasing yields helps to fill in a key part of that picture. Yes, let’s move on from simplistic debates, but by building on what’s useful in the frameworks that have been developed, not by discarding them. 

*A colleague recently suggested that it might help to refer to a land sparing-sharing continuum, which is a better description of the framework.

The other Tilman paper we ought to know about

By Joern Fischer

Just a few days ago, I posted something on how different kinds of framing change what you believe ought to be done in a given setting. I’ve just stumbled into a nice example of this, and I thought I’d share this with the readers of this blog. Do we need to double agricultural production by 2050 or not?

Citing Tilman (2002, Nature), many papers start by stating the “need” to double production by 2050. Alternatively, authors could cite Tilman & Clark (2014, Nature) – who state that if we changed our diets to less or no meat consumption, we would have a much lower environmental impact. And we’d need less land for agriculture.

Which shall we assume? That demand will inevitably double, by a larger, more carnivorous human population? Or that demand will less than double, because diets can be altered? Our policy advice will differ, depending on which world we assume: we will either recommend producing more, or eating less meat.

So next time you cite one of the many great Tilman papers — check your assumptions, and perhaps cite the other one!

New Paper: The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: a review

In a new paper Josefine Glamann and colleagues conducted a review of literature addressing the food security- biodiversity conservation nexus. We identified two main branches of literature. The “biophysical-technical” branch focused on productivity, natural science and seeking generalizable, often global models. In contrast the “social-political” branch focuses more on specific contextualized localities with a greater emphasis on economic, political and social factors. Bridging the divide between these two branches is vital for addressing the interlinked problems of food security and conservation.

Dendrogram illustrating how the analyzed papers addressed the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Dendrogram illustrating how the analyzed papers addressed the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation.

Historically, food security and biodiversity conservation have been dealt with as separate issues, each with their own scholarly approaches, debates, and understandings. However, recently there is increased awareness that conserving biodiversity and ensuring the food security of a growing human population are inextricably interrelated issues. Arable land and land under permanent crops cover approximately 11 % or 1.5 billion hectares of Earth’s land surface, and there are approximately 2.7 billion hectares of land under some form of agricultural use, whether crop production, livestock grazing, or agroforestry. Within the next few decades, developing countries as a whole could increase cultivated land by approximately 110 million hectares. Such an expansion of agricultural land, in turn, would pose a major threat to biodiversity, especially because most of this expansion is expected to take place in areas with high conservation value.

Despite close connections between food security and biodiversity conservation, there is no coherent body of academic literature specifically addressing the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation. Different approaches and perspectives are driven, in part, by the assumptions and traditions of the scientific disciplines that engage in this topic. Some existing approaches emphasize single issues such as increasing food production while minimizing impacts on biodiversity. Other approaches strive to address the food–biodiversity nexus more holistically, for example, through social-ecological system analysis that considers the connection between issues such as poverty, equity, and corruption in addition to food supply. Given the limitations of “one size fits all solutions”, pluralistic approaches to studying and managing the nexus of food and biodiversity conservation are to be welcomed. However, we need to better understand the broad types of approaches found in this emerging field, and how these approaches relate to one another. For this reason, we undertook a quantitative review of recent academic literature on the food–biodiversity nexus.

The aim of the analysis was to evaluate the framings and perspectives regarding the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation covered by each article. To that end, a scheme with 68 questions was developed to allow us to consistently assess these issues across the analysed articles. We used agglomerative hierarchical cluster analysis, to find grouping structures within the literature.

Research on the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, already this research appears to be coalescing into two distinct and potentially oppositional worldviews, which are driven by different underlying assumptions regarding both the nature of the problem and the best means to address this. We identified two main branches of literature, containing a total of six clusters of papers. The “biophysical-technical” branch (clusters: “sustainable intensification” and “production focus”) was dominated by the natural sciences, focused strongly on the production aspect of food security, and sought general solutions. In contrast, the “social-political” branch (clusters: “social-ecological development”; “empowerment for food security”; “agroecology and food sovereignty”; and “social-ecological systems”) often drew on the social sciences and emphasized social relations and governance, alongside broader considerations of sustainability and human well-being. While the biophysical-technical branch was often global in focus, much of the social-political branch focused on specific localities. Two clusters of papers, one from each branch, stood out as being particularly broad in scope—namely the clusters on “sustainable intensification” and “agroecology and food sovereignty.” Despite major differences in their conceptual basis, we argue that exchange between these two research clusters could be particularly helpful in generating insights on the food–biodiversity nexus that are both generally applicable and sufficiently nuanced to capture key system-specific variables.

To facilitate greater cross-fertilization between research clusters, one major challenge will be recognition of the benefits and limitations of models favoured by the two broad approaches to the food security–biodiversity nexus—relatively simple, generalizable “neat” models versus relatively “messy,” complex- and context-dependent models. Bridging this divide will require explicit consideration of the scientific traditions and related, often normative, assumptions that underpin different heuristic model. George Box famously stated that “all models are wrong, the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful”. This is a question that researchers on the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation need to engage with more deeply. In particular, how can relatively simple, biophysical-technical models be usefully contextualized to account for important social, political, and ecological factors that determine real-world food security and biodiversity outcomes? One potential bridge between these two branches is to use a social-ecological systems approach to facilitate improved integration. Both aggregate levels of agricultural production and local conditions influence food security and biodiversity conservation outcomes at multiple scales. Systems approaches acknowledge such cross-scale interactions. Here, the outcomes in terms of food security and biodiversity conservation are conceptualized as responses to dynamic, interacting, multiscale, biophysical, socioeconomic and political processes, or system properties. Relevant system properties include land-use patterns, levels of production and intensification, but crucially also the mediating sociopolitical factors from local to global scales.

Glamann, J, Hanspach, J, Abson, D, Collier, N, Fischer, J (2015) The intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation: A review. Regional Environmental Change, 1-11. (PDF)