New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

I’m writing to share new paper of ours that just appeared online in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Following from our earlier work, this is our most concrete attempt yet to show what a social-ecological approach to the food-biodiversity nexus might look like. The PDF is available here.

SES food and biodiversity

In a nutshell, we argue to conceptualise the food-biodiversity nexus via four archetypical outcomes. Hypothetical outcomes regarding food security and biodiversity conservation could be win-win, win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose. We then argue that all of these outcomes can be observed in the real world, and that – importantly – they are not entirely idiosyncratic. Rather, each has typical system characteristics associated with it. These characteristics are (i) features of the system (e.g. the kinds of capital stocks and governance arrangements in the system); (ii) drivers of the system (external influences that push the system in a certain direction); and (iii) feedbacks that maintain the system (the things that keep it going).

In the paper, we look at the four archetypes with respect to these three sets of system characteristics. Drawing on examples, we then generate hypotheses for what typical lose-lose systems look like; or what typical win-lose systems look like, and so on. This new framework provides a dynamic way of thinking about food security and biodiversity conservation. That is, it provides first indications of what needs to be done to change a situation for the better – for example, to turn a lose-lose system into a better state, it would be important to activate drivers of a more desired state; and overcome the feedbacks that currently maintain the system in its lose-lose dynamics. Once the undesired feedbacks are broken, and new drivers are activated, the system is “ready to go” in a more desirable direction.

A key challenge for the future will be to more carefully consider what all this means in a teleconnected world. Near the end, we cite a paper by Crona et al. on social-ecological syndromes – constellations of globally connected factors influencing a particular system – and indeed, this idea could be fruitfully explored further in a context of food and biodiversity conservation.

Finally, a small anecdote: When writing this paper, we had gone to great lengths to not again “bash” the popular framework on land sparing versus land sharing. Our intention, very simply, was to provide a genuine alternative, instead of continuously complaining that the dominant framing is not good enough. During peer review, this approach backfired. One reviewer felt we had unduly “ignored” existing science, thereby forcing us to put back explicit discussion on the sparing/sharing framework. This is how Box 1 came about – our attempt to succinctly summarise why a new framework is needed. Perhaps it strengthens the paper… but a big part of me would have preferred to simply provide an alternative, without yet again having to go over the various arguments why we think it’s time to move on from the currently dominant framing.

10 thoughts on “New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

  1. Joern:
    I’m curious about your use of the phrasing “given out” in Box 2 in relation to governments in Africa working with investors in the land grabbing episodes. From what I can discern it appears these very large land deals are leases, no? I’ll confess I’m not done reading the whole paper, but from what I’ve seen thus far, one needs to consult the references in order to get at this nugget. Perhaps it’s just my experience of English, but leasing is not commonly associated with something being “given out”. Even the phrase “land grabbing” seems to tilt the expectation toward a sort of purchase or colonial sort of taking.
    I’d argue that the case can still be made without choosing to color these transactions in this manner.

    And on the matter of Box 1’s significance – I’d stand along side the reviewer. I’ve seen the discussion – but I’ve been around these parts for a while. I’m not so sure everyone who comes to this paper will have the same advantage.

    • Thanks Clem. Typically, these deals are long-term leases, which amount in practice to the land being “given out” to investors. The politically correct term is of course “foreign investment”. You can find out additional details on land grabbing here:
      Cheers — Joern

      • Thanks for the link. But I still have the sense that if blame were to be assigned for the situations as they stand it would fall heaviest on the investors and not so much on the governments who’ve offered and negotiated these leases. When the narrative is laid out as “landgrabbing” and the leaseholders are held up as colonialists, or thieves I think we risk missing the contribution made by those who started the process. Or, is there evidence the governments did not initiate the leasing programs? If coerced into these leasing schemes then this evidence should be made public.

        Are there data examining how the funds generated by the leases have been used? Has health care infrastructure improved? Is there any benefit to those whose access to what were public lands before (and is now restricted)?

  2. Thanks Clem. I think I understand where you’re coming from now. Indeed, of course, governments play a critical role. In much of Africa, the problem is precisely that displaced communities do not feel the benefits in terms of better infrastructure or other things promised — a point we also raise in the box. So, yes, you’re right — governments play a key role in this, and it’s not only (or even primarily) the investors as such who give rise to community misgivings. Cheers — J

  3. Neat! This paper advances the discussion on conservation in agricultural settings enormously. I particularly like the broad brush approach that allows inclusions of all of the settings globally while retaining adequate nuance to be useful.

    Rice may be far more beneficial to biodiversity on a global scale than what you suggest, though there is considerable variation in the numbers and kinds of species rice fields supports. In areas where vast areas have been converted to rice cropping relatively recently, like in many areas of SE Asia, there seems to be a far lower number of species retained compared to “older” rice-crop landscapes.

    It will be useful in future iterations of the thinking (and I am certain you will achieve those!) to incorporate lands with multiple cropping, especially those that change the crop type each season. In our work in south Asia (focusing on birds in lowland Nepal and India), we are finding that findings in one season do not adequately represent total biodiversity that the landscape supports across a full year. Seasonality (migration) is a significant complexity as well. Seasonal cropping also adds to the complexity related to measuring productivity as also considerations of local institutions that cater to changes (labour availability; markets in which to sell produce; etc.) related to the multiple crops grown in one year.

    Gopi Sundar.

    • Thanks a lot for your feedback! I think you’re right regarding temporal patterns, and seasonal patterns; as well as landscape complexity. Landscape complexity is somewhat captured implicitly in our approach, because smallholder (e.g. agroecology) landscapes typically are smaller-scale, more diversified mosaics than intensive cropping landscapes. But on the seasonal issue, I think you are entirely right, and this is a bit of a headache to anyone collecting empirical data… as I’m sure you are aware! All the best — J.

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