Kathryn Green, SIID Postdoctoral Research Associate
This article was originally posted on Interdisciplinary Exchanges

In a recent workshop on food security, poverty reduction and biodiversity (part of the Interdisciplinary Exchanges series), we discussed the meaning of food security, and how this intersects with priorities and actions for biodiversity conservation, particularly with recent interest in ‘land sparing/sharing’ debates. It is common for these issues to be framed as problems in which malnutrition, global population increase, and the expansion of agricultural land to meet rising demands for food, forces a trade-off between feeding hungry people (and more of them) and conserving nature or biodiversity. Expansion of cropland in tropical countries is already identified as the principal cause of biodiversity loss, driving efforts to increase efficiency, enhance security, strategise wisely, and all whilst thinking ‘transdisciplinarily’.

This kind of thinking is undoubtedly important; whether we approach these issues from the perspective of food production, agricultural sustainability, climate change adaptation, biodiversity conservation, or poverty reduction, questions about land, how we use it, how we balance different potential uses and impacts, and what is sustainable, require us to think beyond a single framing. A recent 3-year initiative funded by the ESRC, the Nexus Network, promotes this kind of ‘joined–up’ thinking between the domains of food, energy, water and the environment, arguing that such systems are inextricable linked, and “efforts to improve sustainability in one domain without considering wider connections often prove inadequate”.

In trying to join these pieces together, the discussions at the Interdisciplinary Exchanges workshop made me question what the work by Ben Phalan and colleagues on land sparing/sharing actually tells us, and how it might be useful to thinking and making decisions about food security.

The land sharing/sparing debate is framed around broader questions of whether land for agriculture and land for nature should be separated (land sparing) or integrated (wildlife-friendly farming; land sharing). This has become a topic of fierce debate. Phalan et al., (2011, 2014) make a strong case for the biodiversity benefits of land sparing through sustainably intensifying agriculture to close yield gaps, whilst tying these strategies to enhanced and strategic protection of nature in protected areas (including Community-Based Natural Resource Management and strategies to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Critics, and advocates of land sharing, argue that increasing yield is not thesolution to food security, that intensification brings myriad negative environmental impacts (fertiliser runoff is commonly mentioned), and that rather than prioritising production, reducing demand and wastage should be central to our strategies for food security.

Phalan et al., are the first to admit that this dichotomous framing is unrealistic; whilst it is useful as a heuristic for thinking about the trade-offs involved in managing land for agriculture and nature conservation, a combination of these strategies is more realistic (although under-evaluated). In their most recent article, they acknowledge the criticisms of a ‘productionist’ yield focus, and agree that reducing demand and addressing the distribution of agricultural products must be an element in our global strategy for food security, and they also attempt to address the question of where land sharing might be a more appropriate strategy. They do not deal with wastage and demand reduction in any depth however because, they argue, progress in this area will not be quick or drastic, and the threat from crop expansion is real and growing, now.

Herein lies a key aspect of the food security problem; if we do not prioritise these complex, political issues in our research and in our conceptualisation of the issue, we will only address the symptoms and fail to address the underlying problems. If we strive only to improve yield from agricultural output (albeit in sustainable fashion) to meet predicted demand for the next few decades, will we make any progress towards food security? Will we still face famine and malnutrition in some areas and overconsumption in others? And, even if we could satisfy demand for the next few decades, will we still be faced with ever-increasing demand beyond that time? The land sparing/sharing debates are highly useful for bringing nature conservation into our thinking about agricultural land use in the context of food security, but they do not cover all the bases. Our ‘transdisciplinary’ thinking has to also include the politics of food production, distribution and consumption. This requires thinking about food security not just in terms of demand and supply, but in broader terms of availability and access.

The work I find most interesting in this sharing/sparing debate is an early article published by Phalan et al., as this paper deals most with the complexities of understanding the issue, and has a running theme of controversies, misconceptions and assumptions on both sides of the debate. These include:

  • The role of degraded lands and whether it is better to restore these for nature conservation or put them into agricultural use
  • ‘Sharers assume intensified agriculture must mean “chemical drenched, mechanically-harvested monocultures with no associated biodiversity” (p. 63), but ‘sparers’ argue this is not necessarily the case.
  • The yield potential of wildlife-friendly, non-intensive agricultural methods is controversial.
  • It is unclear to what extent the externalities of intensive agriculture (e.g. fertiliser runoff) can be reduced (for example through regulating the most harmful chemicals), whilst the externalities of wildlife-friendly farming are generally less acknowledged (greenhouse gas emissions, for example).
  • The role of heterogeneity (within agricultural landscapes and across wider scales) is unclear. This is assumed to be a positive asset, and ‘sharers’ often assume that wildlife-friendly farming will maximise habitat heterogeneity. Heterogeneity is a complex term, however, that changes for different species and across different scales.

What these debates and this intriguing complexity don’t tell us is how a land sparing strategy with reinforced nature conservation and sustainable intensification will benefit the rural smallholder agriculturalists that make up 50% of the poor in developing countries, and are the backbone of food security. To be fair, this is not in Phalan and colleagues’ remit, they are interested in optimising the allocation of land use for biodiversity and agricultural production, and they do recognise that their suggestions need to be considered in the context of social justice and concerns over corporate control of agricultural systems. I argue that this is where the dichotomous framing of land sharing/sparing begins to become unhelpful when thinking about food security (rather than agricultural yield). Land sharing/sparing literature helps us to bring environmental concerns into thinking about agricultural yield and land use, but it does not help us to think about securing access to food, supporting agricultural livelihoods of the poorest or how to make agricultural production ethical. The politics of agricultural systems and the decisions that affect these are not at the forefront of argument to ‘spare’ or ‘share’.

The complexities recognised above do not address the socio-politics of access to food, its unequal distribution or highly skewed patterns of consumption in terms of both calories and nutrition. Land sparing/sharing deals with a different kind of complexity, and it is one that is quite inviting. A real problem for politicising food security and putting social justice at the top of our agenda is that the questions posed by land sharing/sparing debates are much more in line with what researchers do (particularly those in the environment and development fields); we can apply for funding to assess the trade-offs across different levels, we can analyse the outcomes of different strategies at different sites, we can delve into the complexity of habitat heterogeneity in options to support agricultural production and spare important sites for nature conservation. This could keep us busy for years; there are masses of data that could be collected, collated and analysed, there are multitudinous collaborations that could be built, and all for very important reasons (feeding the world and saving its natural environment at the same time).

The radical alternatives, changing global food production systems to reduce demand and wastage, prioritising food security for those that need it most, and orientating our decisions around social justice are just as important and arguably no more/less complex but are, perhaps, less appetising. These seem like the kind of challenges that beg the question ‘where do we even start?’ an altogether less promising prospect for research or action. I argue that we start by putting these questions at the very core of how we think about food security, integrating them into our transdisciplinary framing of the issue. It may not sound like much, but it might just get us past the point of the political elephant in the room.

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