Towards better interpretation of land sparing/sharing studies

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.

14 thoughts on “Towards better interpretation of land sparing/sharing studies

  1. Thanks a lot to the host and the guest.

    A couple of things keep bugging me on the sharing / sparing framework, continuum, or whatever it may be:

    – First: is it anything more than an academic debate*? Is there really chance to decide what would be best for a given locale / fragmentation scenario etc., or are land uses imposed by more powerful, regional- or global forces (markets)? I guess pretty much the same could be asked for the older reserve-design set of ideas. *Not saying that wouldn’t be interesting per se.

    – Second: Is the debate excluding wealthier lands & their biodiversity? I have the feeling that, for instance, western Europe is already shared enough and food security is not so much at issue, yet subsidies keep flowing towards maintaining “open” landscapes.

    • Thanks Mario! Your reply only just went live — I hope you will still get a response from Ben. I’ll hold back for now, since it’s his post. Cheers — J.

    • Hi Mario,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and apologies that I haven’t had a chance to reply until now.

      I think there are many opportunities to use detailed information on trade-offs to inform conservation actions. I don’t think conservation actors can impose a particular land-use configuration on an area, but they can make choices about which actions to prioritise – should they lobby for a new protected area, develop conservation easements, promote wildlife-friendly farming or support habitat restoration, for example? If it widens the range of options that are considered in particular landscapes, and encourages conservationists to understand the opportunity costs of conservation better, then work on sparing-sharing will have made a useful and practical contribution.

      Most useful will be if conservationists can find ways to link higher yields with sparing land for nature in practice. I’ve found it difficult to find any program or plan that explicitly sets out to do this, with provisions in place to reduce the risks of rebounds and leakage, to ensure social justice, and to minimise the negative externalities of increasing yields.

      The concepts can be applied anywhere, including in wealthier countries. In Western Europe, there are certainly more effective ways in which subsidies could be spent, if the aim were nature conservation. Unfortunately, most of the subsidies given to farmers are not even nominally for conservation. One can reasonably ask, in Western Europe, how subsidies might be used to deliver better results for conservation, bearing in mind that both rewilding and wildlife-friendly farming involve opportunity costs.

      • Again, many thanks for taking the time. Reading now my original comment, I think I sounded too skeptic. The debate is indeed having useful contributions, even for those like me not directly involved in testing the ideas; a great, recent example is Kremen 2015 10.1111/nyas.12845, a treatise of modern conservation conundrums and scenarios (HT to Joern for tweeting it).

        I will take with me your line “Most useful will be if conservationists can find ways to link higher yields with sparing land for nature in practice”. I’d say it covers an overall, real challenge ahead, including increased distribution efficiency as de facto higher yields. And going back to my own, admittedly parochial worries, it also opens the question whether higher yields are required / wanted / locally v. regionally fair, etc. Don’t know what to think of my study area, which includes semi-natural habitats, where changes in the management of livestock may be actually moving the slider towards the sparing end. At the same time, cultural resistance and subsidies – as I understand directed to the same stakeholders that manage the livestock – keep fighting back in those less used areas. Thick stuff, and of course my previous “may be” should be better replaced by numbers.

      • Hi Mario,

        Parts of the world where production is falling – which I think might be the case where you work? – are interesting. Here, the options for conservation include using the reduced agricultural pressure to “soften” current land-uses, and to free up areas for habitat restoration or rewilding. At the same time I think it is worth asking whether demand within the region has decreased, or whether production is just shifting to other parts of the world. Such international displacement is an incredibly complex challenge to understand and respond to.

      • Great continued conversation here… I just want to add two quick (-ish) (I promise, for realsies) points.

        1) I still feel that the utility of the information from production/biodiversity trade-off analysis remains to be seen. It is lovely to say that it can usefully inform later, broader analyses. It is another for that to be true (and yet another as to the exact way it “ought” to be true). This is arguably an empirical question itself, and one I have spent much thought on. That is, “what kind of scientific analyses are most apt to lead to policy changes in the right direction?” In this regard, I do not feel sparing/sharing is without merit; I DO think it is actually less likely to lead to policy changes of the type we all would like to see (better integration of science and equity into policy-making in general in the areas of food and the environment).

        2) I also still would argue that analyses without equity analysis and other social issues integrated from the start are problematic. In a masterful conclusion (imho), Jesse Ribot writes a paragraph I wish I could use in some form for every paper I ever write from here on:
        “One of the two fabulous external reviewers for this contribution asked ‘how far can a climate process be expected to go in correcting all past wrongs’ and ‘must all climate researchers also be responsible for analyzing all underlying social issues’. My answer is that any environmental intervention can go very far, and ‘yes’ this is our responsibility. Without being aware of the past, as in all areas of endeavour, climate researchers are likely to reproduce and deepen past wrongs. Hence, a grasp of the past or serious partnership with vulnerability analysts is not optional. This reviewer continued, ‘The kinds of institutions, processes and forums that could enable the fundamental changes you call for do not yet exist’, and asked ‘What can your paper contribute to helping us imagine them into being?’ They do exist in some places at some times for some people. This essay is part of imagining them into broader being. ‘Society is positively transformed by showing, through criticism, what most needs changing and in which particular ways’ (Peet and Hartwick 1990, 282). If we, as analysts or activists, insist on requiring that all interventions enable democracy, and we insist this demand be enforced, we may help force the hand of practice – by mobilizing liability, sanction or exposure and shame. I do not want to act or be in a world that does not try. Democracy is an ongoing struggle. It is not a state to be arrived at. It will come and go in degrees. Trying is the struggle that produces emancipatory moments – however ephemeral they may be. The fleeting joy and creativity of freedom seem worth it.”

        Obviously, I think this applies to this area of research, and not just climate.

      • Hi Ben,

        I can’t be sure whether production is falling; there’s some public data, but they probably deserve a more expert view.

        It’s the change in use what I find particularly interesting: it is a livestock region, and ~70% of the heads range freely late spring to mid autumn. The ‘traditional way’ was driving the cattle up to mountain pastures, using first lower, spring ones, then intermediate, and finally in summer the ones high up. In the last decades, trucks partly shortcut the process, and deliver the animals to high pastures faster, easier. But that kind of vehicle access is not at all available for all the traditional grazing areas, so while some lands get more heads (or at least during longer time), other lands are not used. That is, use is more intense in some, while it decreased in others (regrowth seems to cause discomfort, and is fought back to some extent by burning and slashing).

        Am I describing some sort of unintended land sparing? Could it happen in other so-called ‘less favoured areas’ in Europe?

        In that case, my personal bias and I would be happier, thinking about forest recovery. However, I am not sure that unintended conservation can be trusted to be robust enough.

        I read all the comments above with deep interest, specially those with a more social twist; I had not think much about them before, and I feel particularly clumsy around them. I guess that in a EU context we need to understand if shifts are actually driven by locals, or else by markets favoring, say, breeds that produce meat faster. We could probably also discuss whether subsidies are really benefiting those living in rural areas in the long term, and how long can a rural area be considered so. And probably also whether a heavily subsidized primary sector deserves the name.


      • Hi Jahi,

        I think we largely agree in principle, that social and political questions are central to whether the sorts of changes we’d like to see will actually materialise.

        For what it’s worth, I’ve worked to develop better methods for biodiversity-production trade-off analysis as a way of improving on the methods being used by conservation biologists, not as a replacement for methods used in other disciplines. I see improved methods as a small step forward, not a complete solution, and I agree with you that finding better ways of integrating distribution and other social issues with biophysical analysis is much needed.

        Hi Mario,

        Interesting observations. There are two very different narratives about the desirability of agricultural land being abandoned in southern Europe – one warning of the loss of species that have adapted or thrived alongside farming, and one excited about the possibilities for reforestation and rewilding. Both views likely have some merit, depending on which components of biodiversity we focus on, and how we measure them.

        Questions we could ask include: What policies could alter the current trajectory of change, and how? Would that lead to more desirable outcomes, for a range of conservation and social objectives? To what extent can those outcomes be predicted?

  2. Thanks for your contribution, Ben.

    There a couple things where I remain at odds with your take, and just wanted to outline a couple of them very briefly here, in the spirit of continuing the conversation.

    For one, I think these points of yours are well-taken:
    “Understanding [relationships between production and biodiversity] 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.”

    I find these points, however, bemusing. Empirical (and theoretical) research has shown that there are typically consequences of different production scenarios on social justice, food security, and agribusiness actions. So it seems to me disingenuous to say that sparing/sharing should not be fit into these frames. If sparing/sharing is concerned with biophysical analyses of production and conservation (on the assumption that there are generalizable relationships between the two), why does it not make sense to in turn ask how how these relationships and scenarios interact with social (non-bio-physical) elements? There are, I would argue, generalizable–though of course not iron-clad–relationships between production, conservation, social justice, food security, and agribusiness. Indeed, part of what many scientists and students of histories are concerned about is that biophysical science that is *not* articulated with social questions can lead to very problematic results and social implications.

    Further, I find it problematic that you feel you (or any group) should be able to define what sparing and sharing means. Political ecologists–and increasingly, ecologists full stop–have argued that ecology *without* looking at politics is both less accurate (because politics are a strong determinative force in the shape and evolution of natural systems) and inherently dangerous (because looking at biophysical systems without considered justice and policy tends to reinforce existing inequalities–how could it not? If one is neutral in a system of unequal power, your actions cannot by definition remedy the problems caused by unequal power).

    So while you are certainly entitled to define your work in sparing/sharing as wholly separate from the social issues, there are those of us who think that, at best, this is incomplete, and at worst, runs risks of reinforcing certain frames (inadvertently as it may be) that can amplify or sustain injustice. I recommend the work of Michael Watts and Paul Robbins as two starting places (Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria; Political Ecology 2nd edition). No researcher is entitled to confine the scope of analysis for other researchers or a framework, but rather can only argue for the validity of the limits they place on it. Yet this is precisely where we may most intensely disagree. I argue the “biophysical only” limits are not valid; you (and many others) believe they are. I believe research such as that by Watts, Robbins, John Perkins, Glenn Davis Stone, Nancy Lee Peluso, and many others have shown us that separating the social and ecological is fraught and, as I say, a less accurate or valid way of exploring the world. So while you may feel it is an unfortunate imposition on the framework, I feel it is necessary and scientifically demanded by the problem. I don’t know that we can resolve this particular disagreement, but it is useful to enunciate this element of it.

  3. Hi Jahi,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Yes, it makes sense to ask how production interacts with social issues. However, I think there is considerable scope for finding different social systems that could produce similar biophysical results.

    To give a concrete example, in Ghana, where I have worked, there are different ways of increasing palm oil yields. It can be done by increasing yields on large plantations managed by companies who use hired labour, and supply palm oil to export markets. Or, it can be done using very similar production methods, but where the plantations are a few hectares, are owned and operated by small farmers, and supply palm oil as a key component of local diets. Those production systems are very similar in biophysical terms, but very different in terms of their social consequences. So, we can’t assume that “increasing yields” has a single, predetermined social outcome.

    Perhaps an analogy would be helpful. It is useful to look at the consequences of adopting different mixes of energy sources (wind, solar, coal, oil, nuclear etc) for greenhouse gas emissions and for energy production. Such an analysis doesn’t need to consider other societal concerns to provide valid data. It is when the results of such an analysis are brought into the public sphere that they need to be integrated with other concerns. Decision-makers and the public won’t base their decisions only on consideration of greenhouse gas emissions, but also on other information about cost, acceptability, health risks and so on. The role of scientific research is to inform policy, not to dictate it. It might well be that we reject some “best” solution from a narrow emissions-production perspective, because of other concerns such as nuclear waste or geopolitics. In a similar way, we might decide to sacrifice some biodiversity in pursuit of a more politically acceptable land use solution, but at least let’s do that with our eyes open as to the consequences for other species.

    To me, the role of social and political research in relation to the land sparing-sharing continuum would be most usefully focused on identifying the conditions under which different landscape configurations, in particular places, would be compatible with social justice and food security, and those where they would not. Clearly, the status quo has failed to deliver either social justice or environmental sustainability. What I think we need to work towards, as a research community, is more research that integrates ecological, social and political perspectives, so that we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of the range of consequences of different land-use choices.

  4. Hi Ben,

    thanks, there is a lot in your post I agree with, but there is one passage that I think helps shed light on why I find the sparing/sharing model. you say

    “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”

    The problem for me is at what point do the stakeholders come into these decisions? Here it is presented as the stakeholders (smallholders) being help to achive the goals – optimal land use – implicit in the model. This does not seem right to me. Are diversity indices and aggregate yield (or profits) the outcomes by which those smallholders judge how to manage thier lands?

    If not then I think we need a different model involving stakeholders in the framing of models providing evidence regarding how their land should be managed. These normative models (and the sparing/sharing model is a normative model) should based on the normative goals nd world views of the stakeholders, not just the scientists. That may mean that in some, or even many cases, a biophysical trade-off,model is not what is required, but one that addresses inequlity, power relations, poverty etc..

    I am sure it was not your intention, but I think this is the power and problems with all models in sustainability science. They are saturated by normativity and if that normativity is not explicitly explored we run the risk of our models making judgement about the states of the world, and through the legitimacy of science, policy makers pushing those ‘model solutions’ on people with very different norms, goals and ways of judging the world than built into those models.

    For me this train of though is actually one of the most stimulating and motivating I have had about sustainability science and that is very much thanks to the land sparing/sharing debate and the pasionate, thoughtful and open debates that are evolving around it,

  5. Hi Dave,

    Good question, and one which conservationists around the world are grappling with in different ways. Smallholders and other sorts of farmers will have their own priorities and objectives, and any conservation strategy that seeks their support needs to address those, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.

    How that plays out will be different in different contexts. Involving all stakeholders early is probably the best option, but isn’t easy, especially when you consider that many of these sorts of research projects are carried out by graduate students with limited time in the field and a shoestring budget.

    However, even when farmers are not directly involved in research, there are ways of taking their needs into account – an example (from Balmford et al. 2012) illustrates how that could work:

    “…in the western Ghats, villagers around Bandipur National Park who have typically offset crop losses to elephants (Elephas maximus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) by illegally grazing their cattle inside the park have been given financial support to fence their farms. This has boosted yields but also made entering Bandipur no longer the most productive use of these farmers’ time, so degradation of the park has slowed…”

    What we see there is an example of a human impact (grazing in the park) that is assumed to be causing ecological harm. Villagers also have problems (crop raiding by elephants and conflict with the park authorities). The response described addresses their problems while at the same time addressing the problematic ecological impact.

    Where the sort of research I’ve been involved with fits is in quantifying whether in fact concentrating agriculture outside the park, and reducing grazing pressure inside it is likely to have an overall beneficial outcome for wild species. If it wouldn’t, for example, then other sorts of solutions might be needed. At least as I see it, this sort of research can help conservation organisations to prioritise the actions that might result in most conservation benefit.

    I’m glad you’re finding these discussions stimulating and motivating. I’ve learned a huge amount from all of the interactions I’ve had with you, Joern, Jahi and others on this topic, and I’m still learning.

  6. Hi everyone,

    Perhaps predictably, this has turned out an interesting discussion! But it’s actually more than interesting, it’s constructive, and has fewer misunderstandings in it than this “debate” has suffered from a lot in the past. That is thanks to all of you who contributed, and who have managed carefully to look one layer deeper than the first thought that comes to mind. It’s really very nice to see this, I think.

    For now, I wanted to summarise what I think two key points have been so far:
    – where and when do values and normativity come in (explicitly or implicitly)?
    – where and when do other issues (e.g. justice) come in?
    – where and when do stakeholders and their priorities come in?

    I’d add one more that is kind of “dear” to me:
    – should we, in the name of pursuing better biodiversity conservation, interfere with systems have such historically grown, functional human-nature interactions? (I.e. it seems a bad idea to impose land sharing for the sake of conservation to a system that has historically functioned as spared land; and it seems a bad idea to impose sparing on a system that has historically functioned as shared land.)

    These are concrete questions, and I’m pretty sure the answer is “it depends”. Now, if we can work out what it depends on, that could be pretty useful … just a thought!



    • Hi Joern,

      Thanks for hosting the discussion! About your last question, I think it’s crucial to acknowledge that the world is changing, fast. Consumption of food and other resources is rising rapidly, the global population increases by ~80 million people a year, and we’re finding new ways to turn biomass into products, from biofuels to bioplastics.

      Of course, in some places change is happening faster than in others, but the rate of change makes it a priority to work out what changes we are willing to accept, and what changes we should struggle against.

      Shifting cultivators in many places are under increasing pressure to shorten fallow periods and switch to permanent cropping. Farmers with rustic agroforestry systems are under pressure to weed out those species of trees that don’t provide them with benefits such as fruit or medicines, and replace them with fast-growing exotics. Small, high nature value farms are no longer economic to run in many places. At the same time, habitat loss continues – deforestation, wetland drainage, and conversion of grasslands and savannas to pasture.

      Amidst all of this change, I see a big role for conservationists in helping to clarify our responsibilities to the other species we share the planet with, and working out where we should focus to save as much as we can. This is where values come in: how do we define what we want to save? “It depends” to a great extent on what we decide our conservation (and other) objectives are. If we are focused on preventing extinctions we’re likely to come up with different priorities than if we are focused on the cultural value of a landscape.

      I think it’s very important to be explicit about what those different objectives are, and to understand the trade-offs and synergies between them. Then we can start to envision what a “good” landscape state might look like that can provide what people and other species need, and what actions might be effective in moving towards such a landscape state.

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