Land-sparing or Land-sharing? The future of farming

by Claudia Havranek, United Kingdom, ELP 2014
Written on August 7, 2014.

We are currently faced with a global food crisis: nearly one in eight people are starving, and approximately two billion people are lacking micronutrients. The severity of this crisis is set to increase, as food demand is predicted to double by 2050 from a predicted population rise to 9 billion, as well as changes in demand.

Alongside the food crisis, we are also faced with the threat of an anthropogenically induced 6th mass extinction. Throughout the world, species ranges are contracting, leading to local extinctions, associated with a loss of ecosystem function and community resilience. Economically and ecologically, loss of biodiversity has implications for both the sustainability and yield of food production.

Threats to biodiversity, especially of habitat loss and pollution, are linked to farming and so solutions for conservation must not ignore the need for food production. With 38.2% of land committed to agriculture, there are two proposed strategies for the management of agricultural land: land-sparing and land-sharing. Land-sparing involves managing land for farming and nature separately, and is often associated with intensive farming methods. Land-sharing involves the use of wildlife-friendly farming to share farmland with nature.

Identifying the conditions under which land-sharing and land-sparing maximizes the yield-conservation trade-off, as well as understanding the logistical consequences of the implementation of each strategy may be crucial to solutions to both malnourishment and extinction rates. However, as is often the case, there is no unanimous solution.

Insufficient research on yield-conservation tradeoffs limits the extent to which policies may sensibly be based on this data. From the information we do have however, the more beneficial conservation and yield trade-off from land-sparing is countered with lower crop resilience. Land-sharing appears to offer a more long-term solution to improving food production and maintaining biodiversity. Despite lower yield from land-sharing, increased sustainability and resilience may make biodiversity and yield more secure in the long term.

However, drawing firm conclusions, and assuming an antagonism between land-sparing and land-sharing fails to address the real-world complexity. A continuum combining biodiversity conservation and agriculture with land-sparing at one extreme and land-sharing at the other may reflect the changes in biodiversity across different agricultural intensities better, as well as providing the opportunity to tailor management techniques specifically to both biotic and abiotic features of a landscape.

Priorities currently lie in getting food to the malnourished, through improving distribution chains, or improving yield for those least well off, rather than simply increasing global production. Potential for improvements in global food security is therefore at the level of smallholder farming, rather than large-scale intensive farming. At this level, creating sustainable ecosystem-based agriculture for subsistence farmers through land-sharing is likely to have the greatest impact, supported by successful examples in Ethiopia, Brazil and the Philippines where management methods were initially intended for conservation. The benefits of land-sharing for global food security on a logistical level may therefore result in the implementation of this strategy, supported by the limited biological data available.

Despite the complexity of this issue, the outlook is not altogether gloomy: as has been here discussed, the apparent conflict between conservation and yield may not be as contradictory as they initially appear. In a world driven by economics and political decisions, the fact that we are addressing the possibility of integrating food security and conservation, may it be through land-sharing, land-sparing or something in between, is reason enough to feel optimistic.