Land sparing versus land sharing: new evidence

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to recommend a new paper by Richard Chandler, available here. It’s called A Small-Scale Land-Sparing Approach to Conserving Biological Diversity in Tropical Agricultural Landscapes, and gives us a fresh perspective on land sparing versus land sharing. Comments are welcome of course — when you read my review below, you will find I have never sounded so positive about land sparing before!

This paper may well spark some controversy. It compares land sparing and land sharing systems for coffee in Costa Rica. There are several features of this particular study that set it apart from other, apparently similar studies:

– the land sparing system examined (called integrated open canopy coffee, IOC) includes an institutional mechanism to spare land that is actually in place (rather than being advocated);

– the scale of farms practicing land sparing and land sharing is the same; both sharing and sparing farms are small family farms. This means there is not confounding in which large expanses of intensive farming are being compared with small family farms. From a social perspective, both systems appear (approximately) equal, in that they both involve family farms.

– the limitations are clearly stated, including careful disclaimers about uncritical extrapolation to other systems.

The authors are quite passionate about the potential of IOC farms contributing to substantial restoration and conservation activities.

In summary: yet another study on land sparing versus land sharing, but finally one that examines actual institutional mechanisms, in a context without evident inherent social draw-backs associated with either system. The authors demonstrate that in this particular setting, small-scale land sparing farms more effectively preserve bird diversity than similarly scaled land sharing farms.

This may come as a blow to those supporting shade-coffee systems, but to my mind, the study is well-designed and worth discussing. The comparison of actually existing institutionalised systems, while keeping scale constant, is a real strength.

6 thoughts on “Land sparing versus land sharing: new evidence

  1. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Interesting study, brought to our attention by Joern Fischer. An interesting element of this study, of course, is that the yield being talked about here is explicitly staked to livelihoods and not the abstract concept of a “sufficient” world yield or yield towards fighting hunger. In other words, it really has nothing to do (as far as I can see) with the traditional Borlaug Hypothesis that motivated the original land-sparing claims and ideas.
    Is it meaningful that the socio-economic-political mechanism here is quite distinct from classic land-sparing arguments, and that it is based on an actually existing policy regime rather than an abstract one? Or is (or should) the debate be broad enough that land-sparing covers a situation which doesn’t clearly fit into the classic land-sparing formulation? I think it depends on if you are speaking of rhetoric, or scientifically assessable rigor, but more on that another time…

  2. Interesting, Joern. As you may see in the comment on this I posted on my ReBlog, I’m unsure this really “should” count as land-sparing per se. If we require that land-sparing is a rigorously specified approach, it usually is formulated in terms of growing food for the growing population. Maintaining livelihoods in a controlled commodity-crop system is distinct from one of the three hypotheses I’ve identified with land-sparing. On the other hand, it arguably fits with two of three land-sparing hypotheses. I suppose I need to get my paper out addressing this so it can be part of the conversation….

  3. Thanks Jahi, for those comments. I think this is really complicated — what should count. If you define land sparing in the simpler (not necessarily worse) Green/Phalan kind of way then it’s simply about having mechanisms to set aside “wild nature”. This study demonstrates such a mechanism. Yields were doubled, and biodiversity increased, too. All of this happened at a small scale, so the landscape is still (as a whole) “wildlife-friendly”. To my mind, this “small-scale” approach to land sparing comes close to land sharing; as I argued in our Frontiers paper, when sparing happens at an increasingly fine scale, it becomes sharing, ultimately. That scale argument is clear to me, but doesn’t make sense to some… anyway. My point is that this particular system seems worth considering — it is an alternative to shade-coffee that (at least for birds, and from this study, etc) is feasible and seems to be worth considering.

    I am recommending this paper because I think it moves us forward, not because I think it is somehow “the final answer”. There will be no such thing…

  4. I agree with much of what you say, but Green/Phalan often couch their concern in terms of *food needs* and explicitly in terms of the Borlaug Hypothesis and satisfying a theoretical food demand (now or in the future) on “less” land. This is what I mean by distinct hypotheses. Whether dividing landscape uses up between “strict” conservation and “strict” human (ag) use is effective for biodiversity conservation is actually a different question than whether or not this provides for food or livelihood security (or yield). They have conflated these two questions, and I think they’re quite distinct and should be drawn apart. So I see the entire mechanism being at play in the Green/Phalan formulation, and indeed, they have resisted your formulation of sparing/sharing coalescing at a certain scale as a misinterpretation/misapplication of their approach. So I don’t know that this really reinforces Green/Phalan as they typically formulate their approach, even though I think they may see this (as you do) as vindication for it.

  5. Pingback: What we’ve been reading this week – One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?

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

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