A while back we blogged about a study by Phalan et al, that 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 alternatives that were evaluated in that study 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). Phalan et al came to the conclusion that "land sparing is a more promising strategy for minimizing negative impacts of food production, at both current and anticipated future levels of production".
This is a debate that's not going to die in a long while. It is often claimed (UN, FAO etc), that there is a need for 70–100% more food to feed the Earth's growing population. At the same time the UN declared the current decade (2011–2020) as the ‘Decade of Biodiversity’ with the EU setting the targets of halting the loss of biodiversity and degradation ecosystem services as major goals and setting 2020 as the target for restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. But if agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, then we clearly need to find strategies that can reconcile these "conflicting" goals.
Teja Tscharntke and colleagues add their voice to this debate in a recent paper in Biological Conservation. They argue that land sparing advocates do not take into account the complexities of the real world and the potential role agroecological and resilient landscapes have in generating other ecosystem services beyond food production and wild land biodiversity.
Their first key point is that much of the current land sharing vs land sparing debate assumes that global food security is directly and almost exclusively linked to global food production (i.e the more food we produce globally, the more people will be lifted out of poverty). This assumption is incorrect on several counts:
i. Current global food production is sufficient to feed the world, but the problem is that the hungry cannot afford the food. Furthermore, global food security is more dependent on how much food is produced by small farms in poor countries (i.e where the hungry live) rather than how much food is produced on large, commercial farms in rich countries. In this smallholder farm context, the potential to increase food production lies more on biodiversity and ecological processes. Also, small and diversified farms, rather than large monocultures, show greater productivity per area (what is referred to as the paradox of scale).
ii. Inefficiency in food usage is a huge problem (between a third and half of all food produced globally is thrown away by consumers/retailers or lost during production) that needs to be tackled before championing the widespread adoption of increasing food production with high-input agricultural intensification
iii. Land-grabbing, food commodity speculation and biofuel directives are other wicked drivers of food insecurity. While the projected increases in the proportion of cereal and plant oil production that goes into biofuel directive is commendable in trying to tackle greenhouse emissions, it has had the effects of redirecting crop production and causing food prices to rise. It also has played a part in the increases rates of land-grabs: the phenomenon were productive land in developing countries is bought or leased by developed countries and international investors.
Their second key point is that increased farm yields are not incompatible with biodiversity conservation or stewardship. For example, high yields and high biodiversity can co-exist in tropical smallholder agricultural systems. Furthermore, the complexities of social-ecological interactions preclude that increasing yields through intensification will automatically increase the amount of land spared for nature. Research has show, for example, that higher yield and profitability tend to attract migrants and hence, to frequently increase deforestation rates in tropical countries.
The final point is probably the most important one - intensifying agriculture CAN merge productivity gains with resilience and biodiversity goals, but only if it is congruent with resilience and agroecological principles (eco-efficient and environmentally friendly management that focuses on a diversified cropping systems; complex social-ecological interactions are taken into account; a landscape perspective is applied).
This is a great contribution to this debate, of which I'm sure that the last words have yet to be said.