The Food Climate Research Network just posted a new online discussion on land sparing and land sharing. This discussion, in turn, was triggered by Elena Bennett’s comment on land sparing/sharing in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
I am reproducing my own response here — please take a look at the full discussion, too, where you will find other, contrasting perspectives also. And of course, consider if you would like to submit a response on the discussion website yourself.
When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.
So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.
What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.
First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.
Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.
And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.
From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.