The limits of land sparing

By Joern Fischer

Many of you will have followed the debate in our blog on land sparing versus land sharing. I actually feel we made a lot of headway in our little discussion — thanks specifically to Ben Phalan for answering to our posts! The bottom line is that a mix of approaches is needed. I would never argue that we should do away with protected areas; and Ben highlighted that we also need to try to limit the amount of land into which agriculture expands. To this extent, we agree (I think); this in its own right is a very good outcome for a scientific debate!

A wildlife-friendly farming landscape in Romania (photo by K. Rawlings)

In the literature, things still look a little more polarised. I felt that the original paper by Ben Phalan et al. (again, check our previous blog entry if you don’t know what I’m talking about) was too much in favour of land sparing. I also felt the conceptual underpinnings of the conclusions were too simple — and so I decided to write a response, with a bunch of colleagues from around the world. The response has now been published in Science.

In a nutshell, we argue that:

  • effective protected areas in poor countries are often less likely than effective land sharing;
  • sometimes both yields and biodiversity can be high;
  • some regions are simply not suitable for intensive use (e.g. Australia’s wheat-sheep belt);
  • the choice in reality is not between land sparing or land sharing: but bits of both options will be important (a point I made also several years ago in a paper in Frontiers);
  • more food production does not guarantee less hunger, unless issues in unequal food distribution are addressed;
  • overall, we found it is essential that social issues are treated as a core part of the analysis on sustainable food production — partial solutions to ‘disciplinary subsets’ of the overall problem are unlikely to be optimal in the bigger picture.
Ben et al. wrote a response to our contribution, and of course, they don’t agree with our points. But that’s okay: as the discussion in our blog has shown, we don’t fully agree: but we also don’t fully disagree!
I concluded my last entry on this topic by suggesting it was essential to maintain balance on this issue. I’ll re-iterate this point: to solve the problem of sustainable global food production, we don’t need one magic bullet, but we need an integrated agenda that considers protected areas and biodiversity-friendly production methods alongside key social problems and challenges, such as dietary choice and global food distribution.
I agree with Ben that we shouldn’t take as given that ever more land is used for food production purposes — but we also shouldn’t take as given that people consume ever larger amounts of meat, or that food distribution remains greatly unequal. It’s all those fronts that need attention. Just to summarise then: I don’t think anything is ‘wrong’ with the work by Phalan et al.; it’s one useful part of an overall story that is rather complex. The key to me is to recognise (and communicate) that it is just one part of the overall story.
To Ben Phalan — thank you for handling our criticism so gracefully! You made us think, debate, and resolve some of our differences: if only science was like that more often!

4 thoughts on “The limits of land sparing

  1. Pingback: “Buzzword concepts” and their pitfalls | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Pingback: Scale versus mechanism: a problem with land sparing versus land sharing | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Looking for an alternative perspective on food and biodiversity? | Ideas for Sustainability

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