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.