Responsible reporting and responsible conduct with the media

By Joern Fischer

Phalan et al. just published a study in Science, in which they show that intensively using some land for agriculture while preserving the rest saves more biodiversity than ‘wildlife-friendly farming’ over large areas. This study is based on findings from India and Ghana.

To those who don’t know, there is a massive debate about this:

There is no scientific consensus on the generality of their findings.

I am deeply concerned that the media are latching on to this and over-interpreting it. Some people have now argued that even in the context of the European Union (which is very different from Ghana or India!) the benefits of wildlife-friendly agriculture are unproven and should be questioned.

Those engaged in this debate need to be more careful about what they say to the media. It is hugely irresponsible to further the belief that wildlife-friendly farming is essentially a waste of time and money. The ‘debate’ as it is carried out in the media (and some of the scientific literature) is incredibly simplistic, and ignores a multitude of facets that must not be ignored.

Based on our experience in Romania, one thing is certain: protected areas are not what’s keeping biodiversity, whereas low-intensity agriculture is vital. To those who don’t believe it, go in the field, and check for yourself.

Losing balance on this critically important issue is an invitation to those who favour agricultural intensification at all costs. To not see this is naive at best. As scientists we have a responsibility to be careful when we talk to the media, the public and policy makers.

This paper of mine tries to give a balanced overview of some of the key issues at stake.

25 thoughts on “Responsible reporting and responsible conduct with the media

  1. As lead author of the Science paper, I’d like to respond to this. We were very much aware of the potential for this work to be misrepresented, and for that reason, emphasised the limitations of the study in our press release (as well as in the paper itself). You can read the release here:

    We would have preferred if European agricultural policy, organic farming and out-of-context quotes had been left out of media coverage, but we don’t control what journalists write.

    The best way to get beyond what was reported in the media is to read what we did and did not do in our paper. For those who cannot access Science, email me at for a copy.

  2. Hola – interesting post and article. Indeed, protected area delineation will not resolve the farmland biodiversity conservation in RO (and eastern europe) in traditionally managed landscapes (these are mostly environmental friendly as well).

    I also find it a bit far from ‘utopic’ to see a planet scattered with protected areas here and there and in between agricultural and urban deserts. In fact, this form of human civilisation may even collapse much before reaching that human induced planet homogenization stage. “Ecosystems” made by crops, pigs, and other domestic animals, and a lot of asphalt and built areas, and chemically contaminated waters and soils – even if they have some patches of ‘naturallness’ (although one can wonder for how long these ‘natural systems’ may persist, and how much regulating services are they able to provide…), doesnt sound too optimistic…

    There is still a lot of food production in the planet and the hunger is not only because of the lack of food (a nature paper showed it in 2010) – but also because of the lack of eveness of food distribution (some countries and continents waste a lot of food).

    There is a need for a clever planetary food management (or how to call it) and also to keep natural systems as less impacted and connected as possible – to allow to be adaptive to global change.

    Anyway – the topic is really interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Looking at the press release that Phalan cites, its sub-headline reads “Separating land for nature and land for crops may be the best way to meet increased food demand with the least impact on wild species.” This represents concern that the work might be represented? Or does Phalan really think the work supports such a statement? Either way there is an obvious problem.

  4. John, if you extrapolated that summary to the whole world, yes, that would be a problem. That’s why we devoted space in both the article and press release to cautioning against such generalisation. We were also concerned that land sparing might be misunderstood as a passive side-effect of yield increases, which it is not, and that high-yield farming might be misconstrued as necessarily meaning large-scale industrial agriculture. The fact that some media coverage glossed over or missed some of these important details is unfortunate, but it was not because we did not raise them.

  5. Ben — you did raise them, but they did not seem to have the primacy I think they warrant. To be perhaps pedantic about it, these points seemed to be a caveat when they are actually plausibly mechanisms of co-equal importance. Media is quite prone to gloss over pesky details, but when they do, that does not automatically mean that the details or caveats were adequately explicated or emphasized.

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  7. Jahi, you may be right. With hindsight, I feel we should have put greater emphasis on saying that our work was a contribution to ongoing debates, and addresses some important issues which have been neglected, but that there is also lots it does not address. We said those things, but may not have given them enough weight. Particularly in some parts of the media, the “mays”, “mights” and “coulds” were ignored, and it came across too much as providing “an answer”, rather than opening up discussion on a set of difficult questions which we think need to be addressed.

    • Ben, thank you very much for your responses to these various entries. I firmly believe this debate — like others in science and the rest of society — will progress best if we learn about the shades of grey that invariably occur in the real world. The real question is not: which approach is right? But under what circumstances is which mixture of approaches most suitable? I absolutely agree with you that protected areas are, and will continue to be important; they are part of what is needed.

      Personally, I believe that part of the problem may be with journals like Nature and Science (which we all would like to publish in, but few of us manage!). From the outset, they ‘teach us’ to polarise, sensationalise, and oversell. This is not a comment in relation to your work specifically, but it is what these journals foster. This might increase impact factors, but I think it does little to advance a deeper understanding of many issues.

      • I agree with you about the interest in major journals on teaching polarization and oversell. (Indeed, overselling research has been much commented on in Science, Nature, and other major journals over the past several years. Perhaps that has always been true, but it does seem to be gaining attention as an issue.) Nature and Science also, in my opinion, somewhat discourage nuance due to the length restrictions. There is much to be said about concisely worded science, but in issues with so many shades and nuances, Nature and Science would (in my opinion) be well-served by admitting more long-form science writing. (Of course, this has numerous other implications re: price, acceptance rate, etc.) ~Jahi

  8. Hartel Tibor, apologies not to respond to your comments until now. I agree with your call for something like better planetary food management. However, I think we need to be considering all options for keeping natural systems connected, resilient and minimally impacted by global change, so land sparing approaches must be among the options.

    The question of hunger has been raised several times, but our approach is not predicated on any need to increase food production to solve hunger. Rather, because the trend is for food production to increase, these questions become more urgent. There are lots of things we need to do to solve the hunger crisis which have nothing to do with increasing food production. But regardless of how much food we produce, society still has to decide how and where to produce it.

    • Hi again … I’ll respond to this one, too. This raises an interesting philosophical question, which again, I feel runs through a lot of what ‘us conservation scientists’ do. At which point do we take things as given? Some argue we need to revolutionise human behaviour; others optimise how governments can best allocate scarce resources. I think we must do both. But what balance an individual researcher strikes is probably partly a result of how she or he is ‘hard-wired’. Some of us are great with engaging with the current policy battles; others want to contribute at some more fundamental level. Again, the important thing to me is to emphasise the need for balance. Somewhere in this blog, there’s an entry on ecosystem services, to which Toby Gardner responded. It’s about being pragmatic as well as strive for fundamental change. This goes for food production as well as many other sustainability issues, I think.

    • Ben – I appreciate the trends for food production to increase, and I think Joern’s question of how much we take as a “given” is an important one. But it seems to me illogical to take increasing food production increases as a “given”, given that at some level it would be impossible for it to be sustainable. Indeed many debate we’re past that point. Additionally, we know that yield increases (like agricultural land increases) are not “costless”. It seems to me that presuming further food production without engaging on the need to link food and hunger creates an implicit problem–it seeks to ameliorate the effects of a system that, beyond any doubt, must be changed at some point in order to be sustainable or rational. Further, it seems to me odd to approach the issue of “how can we make more food” mostly abstracted from the caveat “and keep throwing away and becoming unhealthy through eating too much of it”. Elementary physics (entropy) implies it’s better not to waste something in the first place, rather than making more of it–the latter will always be more energy & resource expensive than the former, ceteris paribus. (Of course, ceteris often is not paribus, so to speak.)

      This may be exactly Joern’s point regarding different scientists’ different balance/inclinations–but it seems untoward, to me, to work to optimize a system that is wasteful, expensive, indefinitely expansionist (and therefore inevitably unsustainable), and unjust. Especially when there are alternatives, and especially when any approach requires major policy change (e.g., novel land-sparing policies would have to be experimented with and implemented; the effort to secure such policies might be better expended improving policies of food distribution).

  9. Many thanks for these comments, I really like them and learn from them.
    Just as general thing, what seem to happen is that scientists hardwork, find something and may be seduced by that finding, because it seems that under the best available knowledge is the best thing. Society (i.e. through media) can find this aslo seducing and spread it. These findings act as kind of ‘mental traps’, because they are captivating. But science and humanity go through many mental traps, showing that what seem to be a plausible solution for now, under a different context, and different best knowledge availability, may not be the nest solution anymore. If this is true, then to me looking in ‘shadows of grey’ may be the best solution. Other way (i.e. in the black-white way of seeing the world), it may be that one build an entire network and design landscapes etc. based on a given ‘best knowledge’ and later to realize that ups…something was missing in those calculations. But the consequences for those decisions are irreversible and the system should go ahead on that – basically – wrong way. Various management interventions with the aim to ‘ameliorate’ the mistake may or not work, mostly not work.

    It can be complete stupidity what I wrote now (after some biers) but it is good to balance between things. This can happen by involving multiple disciplines (with other words: multiple realities) if possible even contrasting ones. And force them to ‘coexist’ and find optimal solution. This may be close to that ‘balance’.

    I greatly respect what you all do, and learn a lot from your (Ben, Joern) work.

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  11. Joern, Jahi, Tibor, thank you for these comments.

    Joern, I entirely agree with you that the “real question is not: which approach is right? But under what circumstances is which mixture of approaches most suitable?” I couldn’t have said it better myself. That is why I think it is important to collect field data to assess the options in real landscapes, and to understand where trade-offs exist. I think our work is a useful step towards this, and needs to be extended to other agricultural systems and other objectives.

    The question of what to take as a given is crucial as well, and it might surprise some to re-read our paper and discover that we do not take food consumption increases as a given (although we do think they are likely and thus need to be considered). If you look at our Figure 2, we assess a range of food production targets from near zero to much more than is produced at present. How we allocate land is a question that is relevant regardless of how much food we produce.

    I find Jahi’s criticisms difficult to understand in this regard. We are not seeking to optimise a system that is wasteful, indefinitely expansionist etc. The definition of land sparing is that it is a strategy to limit expansion and protect habitats. What we have done is to collect some empirical data to begin assessing various options in a couple of real landscapes. The data show some pretty worrying limitations of low-yield land sharing in those landscapes. For that reason, I think land sparing deserves serious consideration, recognising that sparing strategies have some significant risks, but also that they could be implemented in different ways (e.g. by smallholders using sustainable intensification, linked to protection of community-managed forests).

    Tibor is correct to raise the problem of mental traps. There is also a risk that we mislead ourselves by the stories that we tell ourselves, and these are no less dangerous than simplified models. The best approach, I think, is to listen to what models, data and stories tell us, without taking any of them to be complete descriptions of reality, and wherever possible to subject them to testing by observation in the real world.

  12. Hi Ben – thanks for this. In the past days I had the opportunity to think together with other colleagues about ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture.

    What I learned (between the rows and words) is that depending from which angle we approach it (e.g. considering the present and past as reference point or also include what the scenarios predict for the near future regarding global change, food demand, the number of people and its dynamic or other aspects), the same thing can be less attractive or more attractive. Also, I learned ithat as Eastern European ‘conservation biologist’ ‘I’ will have difficult times (even the word ‘conservation biologist’ is interesting in this respect – because force me to be in a mental mental trap…and rigidity…).

    One thing is not questionable, for sure: people will need more and good quality food and water in the future. This need to be produced in areas of the world where this is possible, and the climate scenarios just make the already difficult things even more difficult.

    In this complicating world the best is to discuss and reflect. From my side it was a nice exercise, including those written in this blog entry.

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