To all editors, reviewers and authors: time to move on regarding land sparing

By Joern Fischer

Synopsis of this blog post: We don’t need sparing or sharing but both; and how exactly this should happen in any given landscape requires a (more holistic) interdisciplinary approach to be answered. Editors, reviewers and authors should recognize this and prioritise work that goes substantially beyond trading off sparing vs. sharing.

It’s no great secret that I’m not the biggest fan of the framework on land sparing and land sharing – though I do recognize that it does have an academic value, and it is an internally consistent, elegant framework. Those who know how to use this framework carefully do good science with it. But most users over-interpret it, which I find increasingly upsetting. So this blog post is a call to editors, reviewers and authors to be more critical about fundamental assumptions that are regularly being made by many authors, but hardly ever spelt out, or reflected upon.

Regularly, authors assume that there is a future production target for a particular region, and regularly, this target is assumed to be something like twice the current level of production. This assumption is deeply problematic and should be challenged.

First, production is a means to an end, not an end in its own right. We produce agricultural products for something. Simply assuming that rising market demand must be met is giving in to the very problems that are driving our global sustainability crisis in the first place! As we highlighted in our recent critique in Conservation Letters, for some landscapes, there may be a goal to increase production, for others the goal may be to decrease production. For many, the problem is not production per se – especially in developing countries. This takes us to point two…

Second, there is an assumption that it makes sense to talk about production separately from other societal concerns. This is fine as an academic exercise but it is deeply concerning in the context of developing countries. In these settings, far bigger problems typically relate to governance, justice, and family planning – there is simply no point in increasing production unless all these other things are sorted out first. The benefits of increased production are not additive effects to better governance, but are contingent on better governance. We argued this in Jan Hanspach’s short piece in Science (to which the editors buggered up the title and through that made it one of the worst titles in the world) and in Jacqueline Loos’ paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Moreover, studies on land sparing and land sharing continue to “test” whether it’s better to have one strategy or the other. As early as 2008, we argued in Frontiers in Ecology & the Environment that it was obvious that we should pursue both strategies in parallel – and it’s context-specific how these can be implemented. Claire Kremen’s recent critique of land sparing/sharing echoed this call. Pretty much all ecologists I know will agree that we should have large protected areas. And it used to be that most ecologists would also argue that we should decrease the environmental impact of farming (in the actual farmland). That made sense, because they are different things. But now … no more! The whole sharing/sparing framing takes a fixed level of production as the ultimate assumption that must be met – but only when this fixed production level is deemed inevitable is it remotely sensible to trade off reserves vs. wildlife-friendly farming. Yet, as stated above, demand is simply an incentive for more production, but production in its own right is of no use whatsoever. Unless of course we believe that all demand for more meat in China, and all demand for more palm oil in Europe must always be met. Ironically, even though few ecologists believe this, they continue to be happy to use the sparing/sharing framework. It’s both sparing and sharing that we need, not one or the other.

Conservation biologists are lost in a new re-iteration of the SLOSS debate. SLOSS wasted one decade of research energy. It was a cool question to ponder for a while – but not cool enough to spend a decade on. I would argue the same is true for land sparing/sharing.

Intellectually, the framework will (in a slightly different way) confirm the species-area relationship just about every time, and so it will confirm that we need large, undisturbed patches. Well, we knew that. It’s still true, and it’s important, but we knew that already.

Practically, the framework says very little, because it chooses a reductionist approach where the science is done separately from the governance. So, beyond confirming that, as a general intention, we ought to save large patches, it doesn’t say anything. And that, we knew before we even started our analyses.

Why is this framework so fatally attractive, when it simply confirms what we knew, and can’t – by definition – give real-world guidance?

Finally, I’d like to re-iterate this is not a personal attack on the authors who came up with this framework. Most of the papers by these guys are super-carefully framed, and executed close to methodological perfection. And they can give a reasoned response to every criticism you throw at them – I’ve tried J

Rather, it’s all those other users out there who just “go with it” because it’s publishable, but haven’t even thought about any of the nuances that frustrate me. Dear editors, reviewers, and authors – don’t continue to let this be SLOSS II.

We don’t need sparing or sharing but both; and how exactly this should happen in any given landscape requires a (more holistic) interdisciplinary approach to be answered.

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7 thoughts on “To all editors, reviewers and authors: time to move on regarding land sparing

  1. The voice of reason there Joern! The whole thing has become so binary and divisive that it really is in danger of becoming a distraction from how to manage multifunctional landscapes for biodiversity, food quantity, food quality, nutrition, water, myriad ecosystem services and the rest. It reminds me of the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate that raged in psychology research in the 50s and 60s (perhaps it still does). The idea that both camps could be right to some extent, seems to be lost on some protagonists. Perhaps every future paper on sparing vs. sharing should be reviewed by a panel of farmers.

  2. Joern,

    I agree that both strategies ‘and more’ are needed. During my recent fieldwork in Indonesia I witnessed what appeared to be a ‘both and more’ landscape in Flores. Large areas of forest remain in the landscape but they are surrounded by a mixture of agroforestry and ‘shared land’ for agriculture, and intensive rice cultivation in the low areas. Endemic birds use the agroforest and shared areas in addition to the ‘spared’ forests. Livelihoods and agriculture are diverse at the smallholder scale and food security does not seem to be a major problem. Of course, these were my observations and information gained from local people in the landscape, including Birdlife Indonesia. It’s an interesting case of the debate not reflecting reality.

  3. Pingback: Towards better interpretation of land sparing/sharing studies | Ideas for Sustainability

  4. Pingback: Re-wilding: joined-up thinking needed | Small Farm Future

  5. Pingback: Re-wilding: Joined-up Thinking Needed | Equities Canada

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