First, sorry for the unintended hiatus. We plan to hit overactive mode in the coming weeks to compensate.
Now to the meat of the matter.
A study published in Science a few weeks back has been kicking up a real storm. The study, by Phalan et al, took a stab at trying to answer which of two contrasting strategies seems best to meet rising food demand while causing the least damage to biodiversity. The two contrasting alternatives that were evaluated were land sharing (low-intensive agriculture and biodiversity conservation are conducted on the same land) and land sparing (intensive agriculture is carried out separately from lands conserved to protect biodiversity). The results? Land sparing came out tops, causing the authors to make the quite bold statement in their abstract that "land sparing is a more promising strategy for minimizing negative impacts of food production, at both current and anticipated future levels of production".
It is a bold statement to make simply because the study was conducted in two countries only (make no mistake, a huge feat in itself considering the scale of the study areas) and so making sweeping generalizations might be a bit premature. Additionally, the proxies used for biodiversity were bird and tree species. In essence a very, very, tiny snapshot of total biodiversity that exists in the areas. Therefore, while the results are interesting and solid in their specific context, they should not be used to make large inferences on how to realign agricultural policies in, say, the EU - as many newspapers latching onto this story have done.
Now, to say that there is a huge argument surrounding this would be an understatement. Mongabay has an article that captures some of the main points. One important issue is whether such a debate (land sharing vs land sparing) is even relevant for biodiversity or feeding the world, when the problem of hunger or starvation is largely a consequence of lack of access to already available food. Joern Fischer, a colleague from Leuphana University in Germany has also raised some very relevant comments to this study in his blog, ideas4sustainability. Based on his work in Romania, protected areas are not the key drivers of biodiversity, rather it is low-intensity agriculture that is playing that role. We at sdupdate have reported on several similar findings around the world, most recently from studies in Mexico.
I think the story is still out on this one, but I would argue that on a global scale the evidence is still tilted toward that people do and have critical roles in promoting biodiversity.