Land sparers feel their oats
A bad argument doubles down, why now?
In 2015, the ‘last word’ on the land-sparing land-sharing debate was penned by leading conservation biologists Claire Kremen. The conclusion of the article is such: land sparing is an interesting mathematical concept, but the link between intensifying land use in one place to land conserved elsewhere is just too much of a logical leap to be useful for policy proscriptions or practice recommendations. Kremen offers a new path forward:
Instead of an either-or framework, a “both-and” framework could lead toward a scenario that most if not all conservationists could get behind—large protected areas surrounded by a relatively wildlife-friendly matrix promoting connectivity through a combination of favorable land uses and corridors.
Despite the wisdom of this sentiment, I sense a brazen unfiltered land sparing vision reemerging, arguing that land use sustainability and climate mitigation is only achieved by greatly intensifying agriculture. In this post I’ll revisit Kremen’s argument for moving beyond over simplified land sparing arguments, showcase a few neo-land sparing discourses and then discuss the implications of a newly legitimized land sparing vision of land governance.
Kremen’s analysis of land sparing
Kremen’s paper reveals a few key problems with a zero-sum land sparing hypothesis in particular.
First, if land sparers had their wish, the result of large highly protected and ‘wildlife-friendly"‘ areas of land surrounded by landscapes of intensified production hostile to biodiversity runs contrary to consensus conservation biology. Kremen notes how basic conservation biogeography suggests that species need both large core areas and a matrix of enough quality for dispersal, migration and reestablishment after local extinctions. Ecological theory suggests that a scenario of strongly protected forests or ‘re-wilded’ areas surrounded by intensive land use would probably be a poor outcome for many species in the protected habitat. And, as research shows, just supporting protection without funding or considering management, is a recipe for protected areas that are bad for wildlife and inaccessible for humans.
Second, increasing agricultural yield in no way guarantees the conservation of some land elsewhere. This is the most bizarre concept at the core of land sparing. It’s true that lots of land that supports species richness has been and continues to be cleared for agriculture or for grazing. This is a big problem. It is also not wrong to see the dynamic of land loss for agriculture as a crucial trend to reverse if one is concerned with preserving biodiversity or combating climate change. But when some agriculture produces more yield per hectare, what is the rationale that connects more calories made to less land cleared? There is no good answer to this question unless you believe in an oversimplified microeconomic version of the food system where food is produced in perfect lock step for demands of human consumption. This is the first clue to the staying power of the land sparing argument. It relies on such an apolitical vision of production and consumption.
What is more troubling is how increasing productivity or efficiency has been somewhat counterintuitively linked to increasing overall degradation. Let’s say Bayer develops some new breeding program that supports cows to get fatter per input. If it is now cheaper to raise cows for slaughter per hectare, a farmer is now incentivized to increase the amount of hectares used to graze. Under the dominance of the profit motive, increasing the scale of production is a good way to capitalize on the efficiency benefit. The neighbors see this, so they also sign on to Bayer’s breeding program and they start to clear forest for more grazing. The result at the farm level is more efficiency, but in the aggregate (where problems of biodiversity and climate come home to roost) the result is more degradation for all. Efficiency gains in a world of competition fall off quickly, placing farmers on a treadmill of production, where the next move is to degrade more land to receive the same profits, or to seek another efficiency package —starting the process over again.
Beyond the possibility of increased efficiency leading to Jevon’s paradox, it is much less likely that dynamics of productivity drive pressure on prime habitats rather market forces and the morass of agricultural, land, forest, and trade policy. Some regions may have stronger enforcement of environmental protections of ‘wildlife friendly’ habitats than others, some farmers and crops may be swayed by intensive research and development packages, consolidation of the seed market may constrain farmer choices, price speculation may suddenly incentivize one crop over another (one which grows under shade and one that requires full sun), etc. These structural social-political forces determine when, if, by whom, and how prime habitats are cleared for more agriculture. As Kremen summarizes:
“[…] there is no simple relationship between agricultural yield and land sparing due to the complexities of national policies and global markets.”
Because there is no good hypothesis for how increased yields lead to land sparing, Kremen says the only type of agricultural intensification worth pursuing must also demonstrate that they support species persistence. Thus the main question we should be asking (if the goal is biodiversity conservation) about proposed models of ‘sustainable intensification’ like climate smart agriculture, vertical farming, genetically modified enhancements to production, farming for alternative proteins, is how do these models support species richness within their boundaries of practice and in relation to their landscapes.
Instead, land sparers focus on a weak alternative, spending resources to try to prove that intensification in one place leads to biodiversity conservation ‘elsewhere’. This move, connecting productivity gains in one place, to made up concepts such as ‘reduced pressure on land’ in a distant other, is a crucial magic trick at the heart of maintaining the industrial food system’s legitimacy.
It is for this slight of hand that Kremen suggests that continued purely ecological studies to try to make that magic trick a reality will never be sufficient to resolve the debate. Siloed ecological analyses that ‘test’ the land sparing or land sharing hypothesis do not maintain the requisite tools to understand the social-geographical relationship between food production and biodiversity.
Thus, instead of spending energy trying to prove which model is ‘correct’, Kremen argues that we should govern land to support some areas of high species persistence and low extractive activity surrounded by productive matrices as suitable for biodiversity as they can be.
To do this, exploring how to design, govern and scale land sharing practices like agroecology provides the least studied yet greatest upside for research and practice. If the goal is biodiversity conservation, further spending resources on intensifying production is counterproductive, because there isn’t great evidence that increasing yields leads to less pressure on land. On the other hand, figuring out how to reduce (if any) yield penalties amongst biodiversity friendly farming and/or studying how to increase their capacity to support species persistence is the best way to spend the limited resources of the research community. Kremen’s advice to the debate is essentially a call to focus on process, rather than evaluation of outcomes:
How to get there is a question worth asking, and getting there is a goal worth striving for. However, achieving this goal will require a shift in research priorities, away from evaluating whether land-sharing versus land-sparing landscapes achieve greater biodiversity conservation, and toward research that examines which matrix types favor species persistence in reserves and promote dispersal among reserves; how policies and governance mechanisms can be linked to reconcile agricultural production and bio-diversity conservation; and which agricultural management techniques can simultaneously promote biodiversity and livelihoods.
This doesn’t mean that intensified production systems should be abandoned. It just means that these systems can’t rely on lazy appeals to land sparing as their justification.
I find a sample of Kremen’s biographical notes relevant here. In a sense, Kremen herself transitioned from a pure ecologist to a more holistic scientist who applied the leading edge of conservation biology to think about the science and practice of averting biodiversity loss in messy human systems like agricultural and mixed protected and productive landscapes. This type of classic interdisciplinarity caught the eye of the MacArthur genius awarding committee and, more importantly, inspired a generation of environmental scientists who operate at the nexus of biodiversity and food systems.
In the academic circles I travelled post 2015, anything resembling the land sparing thesis received a serious eye-roll. It signified either a dangerous naivete about the way fortress style conservation has performed over the last decades or simply an uncritical conservationist worldview that at best maintained the status quo and worst continued to drive unjust land policy. Perhaps, though, my proximity to the debate contributed to my naivete, because the logic of land sharing appears as strong as ever.
Land Sparing Flexes
I feel there has been a recent hubristic restatement of the land sparing thesis— one not based on any new compelling evidence but rather a sense of urgency and a patronizing certainty. These arguments tend to defend intensive high yielding farming in the name of biodiversity conservation or climate change mitigation. They lambast the notion the role that small-scale agriculture plays in either outcome.
Driving these arguments is an adherence to a progress narrative, resisting systems change type thinking in favor of leveraging the benefits of the industrial model. There is assumption of efficiency as an immutable good, an overriding logic of opportunity costs, and an artificial divide between human mediated land use and ‘wild ecosystems’.
Below are a few recent examples that capture the confident restatement of the land sparing thesis. I’m sure (or at least I’d hope) that the authors of these sentiments would embrace a Kremenist view on the debate if pressed, but the selections below capture neo-land sparing in its purest form.
First, a pair of recent articles from Our World in Data, perhaps the center of the land sparing universe at the moment.
Here, I see one of the core driving factors of the revived land sparing enthusiasm becoming clear. The sentiments of the two OWID articles are less about biodiversity conservation and more about agricultural policy. After an impressive display of graphs and data that projects currents trends of land degradation into the future and across different regions, Ritchie argues we should be especially concerned about the rich biodiversity at risk in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ritchie writes:
What’s obvious is that if we want to save these species we need to reduce the demand for extra farmland. If we can find ways to produce enough food on less cropland we can preserve more habitat for the world’s wildlife.
And there lies the rub. The first half of the arguments holds: status quo agricultural practices can degrade important habitats and if they continue or accelerate, this will only worsen biodiversity loss. But the second half of the argument does not hold. It is not obvious that producing more food on less land reduces the demand for more farmland. There is no simple relationship there and yet that is the poison pill embedded in the argument, a policy prescription of intensifying yields as a main priority. And of course, the policy proscription is that a certain ‘we’ need to increase yields of the African continent as an imperative, invoking dangerous neocolonial sentiments of control and the agency-less other.
The next sentiments come from an agronomist, a conservation biologists and a researcher at a prominent environmental think thank. Here, we see classic appeals to fundamental land sparing logics, a defense of the (narrow) benefits of intensive agriculture, and a link between the need to feed a growing population and deforestation.
Perhaps the most bizarre expression of land sparing comes from environmental activist and writer George Monbiot, whose new book “Regenesis” has nicely validated Kremen’s warning of seeking for an either or answer to debates over agricultural production systems. According to Monbiot, he closely reviewed the land sparing land sharing literature, yet came to an alternative Manichean model for food production in a world demanding stark changes to land use: Large protected cores of wildlife friendly habitats surrounded by matrices of high quality for species persistence with no food production. Most food will then come from industrialized production of microbes, based on his assessment of some emerging fermentation technologies in the global North.
I guess Monbiot’s vision is consistent with what raw ecology suggests would support the most species persistence: large habitat patches surrounded by low-impact corridors. But it ignores where all of the people who live in these spaces will do, where they will go if their mode of livelihood is abandoned, how humans in the matrix (or in the cores) would be moved (with great suffering and conflict), or the required ecological knowledge required to manage complex ecosystems that is conserved most widely in cultural practices such as, unfortunately for Monbiot, farming, grazing, shepherding, forest cultivation, and pastoralism.
You can see a clip of Monbiot answering to question about the role of smallholder agriculture in his vision here. Spoiler, he thinks it should mostly go away. In fact, Monbiot has cleverly made a foil of one of the UK’s most popular farmer proponents of low-impact grazing, James Rebanks. This move, putting the eye of scrutiny onto the climate mitigating and biodiversity protecting potential of smallholder agriculture squashes food production into narrow dimensions and strengthens the confidence of the land sparing brand.
Here is my shot-from-the-hip thesis of why land sparing is remerging. The neo-land sparing argument joins three powerful constituencies: disciplinary conservationists concerned deeply with species persistence and forest preservation, agronomists and ecological modernists who see hope in a technology driven second green revolution, and the corporate food regime who are searching for a sustainability narrative to shore up their legitimacy.
It has always appealed to more positivist conservation biologists who place productivity and wild species as core values of their work and mission. This group did not follow in Kremen’s path and seek to blend more social constructionist worldviews and science into their analysis. For a time, this line of thinking was sidelined in academic discourse, as evidence amounted the the diminishing social and ecological returns of productivist agriculture (Of course the yields-at-all costs motive still enjoyed broad legitimacy in more applied and industry funded domains). But then, global food crises and shortages produced new combustion for the ‘feed the world’ narrative at the core of global agribusiness and development agencies. Building on good critiques of local food initiatives that fail to bring structural change to the food system, neo-land sparing effectively frames land sharing as an unserious endeavor in the face of urgent ecological threats and hungry people.
The problem with neo-land sparing arguments
Kremen highlights the problem with the oversimplified debate:
The land-sparing/land-sharing debate has recognized this challenge but its framing is oversimplified relative to the complexity of the problem. Meanwhile, governments, non-governmental organizations, and multinationals are already invoking land sparing for biodiversity conservation as a rationale for policies on agricultural intensification, even though such policies may ultimately further harm biodiversity without leading to poverty alleviation
Some agribusiness groups, landed farmers embedded in the treadmill model, and their allies were at a moment vulnerable to the critiques of agriculture from concerns of labor injustice, environmental degradation and contribution to climate change. But the land sparing discourse has come the rescue, focusing the attention on the problems of smallholder agriculture and meaningless aggregations of land use data. Thus, the problem with the new version of land sparing is that it may shore up the legitimacy of all intensified production in policy. As agroecologists have long argued that land sharing could be better understood if it gained more traction in the funding landscape, neo-land sparing arguments threaten this momentum.
The one weak point of Kremen’s argument is that she may have overestimated the power of conservation science to drive the debate. She assumed, in a way, that all interested in biodiversity conservation would see how a purely land sparing or land sharing vision defies the best ecology available.
Yet it is ideology and values that really drive this debate. An adherence to the human-nature dichotomy, for example, prevents thinking of more-than-human geographies. A strong land sparing vision carries with it an unspoken political vision of how land ought to managed. The land sparers find comfort in the flattening of land governance conflicts into an equation about functional biodiversity, monocrop yields per hectare, and forest area. As Hannah Ritchie writes:
It is a point that I’ve made before: high agricultural productivity is key to protecting wildlife. We need to produce more from less so that we can leave wild spaces for the world’s animals to flourish.
Land sparing makes sense if you see the food system as algebra, with calories and forests on one side of the equation and hungry mouths on the the other. If one believes that our systems of food production are embedded in politics, power, and governance, then even in times of ecological crises, land sparing remains a dangerous discourse, preventing analysis of root drivers of the food systems role on environmental and social ills.