Land sharing vs land sparing in the debate on food security and biodiversity.

Land sharing vs land sparing in the debate on food security and biodiversity.

Land sharing vs land sparing in the debate on food security and biodiversity.

Land management strategies are at the forefront of our journey towards a sustainable agriculture that can secure biodiversity.

Agriculture yield or biodiversity? This dilemma often pops up when talking about food security and environmental sustainability. Increasing farming yield in order to feed a growing population seems to be an objective at odds with the most conservative policies that aim to defend animal and plant biodiversity against the dangers of intensive farming. Against this background, debates on how best to use the land polarize around two different ways to manage the land: land sharing and land sparing. In both cases, the approach is designed to maintain both variety of species and farming productivity.

A false dichotomy

With land sharing, farmers "share" the land with nature and the original ecosystem, in order to maintain biodiversity, within a context of less intensive farming that takes advantage of the animal and plant species naturally occurring in the environment. For example, a cocoa plantation can fit perfectly within an area that retained many trees from the original forest providing fruits and shade. On the contrary, with land sparing, agriculture and biodiversity have a different and somewhat reduced relationship: in simple words, this policy is about aiming for maximum yield in specific areas while leaving the rest of the land to biodiversity, with no farming at all.  According to Ben Phalan, an expert from the University of Cambridge and co-author of a research on environmental sustainability applied to farming, recently published in Conservation Letters, land sparing is more promising than land sharing if we want to minimize the impact of current food production while keeping the levels needed to guarantee food security. 


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The question is still open in the scientific world, but in the real world, the dichotomy between land sharing and sparing is only apparent, and there are many experiences that fall somewhere between the two. What is needed is a new point of view and a deeper analysis of the problem that can take into account all stakeholders in the dialog surrounding farming yield,  food security and biodiversity.  


History and society matter too

When researching the issue of biodiversity, there is a risk of looking into the future with no regard for the past, for how a given land was used over time. This has a huge impact on the current  biodiversity patterns and their optimal management: choosing intensive farming will have a different impact on border areas, where biodiversity is distributed homogeneously across the land, than on areas that have always been used for farming, where the original biodiversity is concentrated in specific non-farmed areas and needs protecting. It is also important to think of this problem in social terms. The loss of connection between mankind and the environment is often considered as one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and therefore re-establishing that connection by including the social component in the land management could be a winning strategy. 


Dialog and ad hoc solutions

Research in the field of sustainability could offer new solutions to those who are looking for a compromise between maximum farming yield and maintaining biodiversity within a fully sustainable agriculture.                                                              We need on-going and all-encompassing dialog between the various experts who research the problem from a biophysical and technological perspective and those who deal with the social and political issues. We also need ad hoc solutions that take into account the kind of biodiversity that we aim to keep, starting with the assumption that there is no absolute "best" model.                  A research published on Biological Conservation, for example, highlights how land sparing could be the best model for protecting the species that are most sensitive to the changes linked to farming, while land sharing favors the spreading of the most common species. 

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Finally, it is not clear that we would need to maintain the original ecosystem and biodiversity at all costs. Specific sustainable agriculture and land management approaches can create new ecosystems and new biodiversity equilibria that enrich the land also in terms of its resilience, that is the ability to adapt to climate change

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