Remarks on the film "Paved Paradise"
RePlanet's ideas take rhetorical flight
I recently was invited to a local film festival where the forthcoming documentary Paved Paradise was screened. The film, interviewing conservation biologists like Andrew Balmford and environmental journalists like George Monbiot, makes a strong case for land sparing as a process for food system transformation. The film caught my attention because I had just been recently writing on the reemergence of a strong land sparing rhetoric and also because it was somehow connected to the ecomodernist aligned Replanet, an organization I find interesting. The film festival wanted me to provide an alternative perspective on food system change in conversation with the film makers, Karsten de Vreugd and Hidde Boersma after the screening. In preparation I prepared the following remarks. I expressed some of these ideas in the Q+A format, but I thought I would post my whole thinking on the film here. Hidde and Karsten were extremely genial throughout it all. They are taking the film on tour and I hope the comments I shared deepens and strengthens their approach to food system change.
Hidde and Karsten, I applaud you for the film. It is entertaining, joyful, and yet still offers insights on issues at the heart of food systems change. Karsten’s character—a seemingly reluctant yet earnest sidekick—continually provides the questions the audience may have in their head, while Hidde is always there to swoop in to provide answers moments later. It is a brilliant storytelling dynamic that makes the audience feel like they are coming along with you in a journey of authentic revelation.
As a scholar of food systems and environmental science I’d say first that I agree on a number of important points in the film.
The film is right to highlight food production as a key driver of biodiversity loss. The film is right to question the limits of the organic certification as a deep transformative practice with regards to biodiversity. The film is also right to question our visions about farming and farmers and how the stories we tell about the “good farmer” bounds the policies we most quickly reach for when we look for solutions in the food system.
However, in all of these issues, I don’t think that the land sparing model, presented as the key “new” solution” at the center of the film, is a sound basis for food system reform. In fact, I think that the strong land sparing model presented, if adopted, only further risks biodiversity decline, increases food insecurity, and threatens to block other meaningful pathways to change in the food system.
All of the challenges to the land sparing concept that I will detail revolve around a simple problem: Land sparing is an ecological model that obscures more than it reveals. Its logic relies on reducing the food system to an equation that says yields on one side and forest area on the other. We know that’s an insufficient paradigm to understand how we ought to produce food. Well established estimates suggest that our current global production of food is sufficient in calories and in nutrients to feed an estimated population of 9.7 billion or the estimated population in the year 2050. Hunger is a social, economic problem, one of inequality, global injustice, power and capital. It is not, primarily a problem of insufficient yields. Yield increases can increase, decrease or have no effect on food security. How much we produce is not the best entry point into resolving problems of biodiversity decline or global hunger.
If land sparing is to be credible in its pursuit of food security it must balance its focus on the technologies of production with the politics of distribution.
Passive sparing is a dangerous fiction
The next problem of land sparing has to do with the wishful thinking that says, increasing yields in one place leads to conserved forest area in another. You’ll notice that nowhere in the film did we see evidence that intensifying agricultural yields was a causative driver of some biodiversity rich land area somewhere else increasing. What we have, here, is a film about forest conservation and wildlife management strategies pasted next to stories of techno-optimistic agricultural intensification practices.
This is fine! We should highlight and debate methods of agricultural practices that support ecology, human livelihoods, labor justice, and biodiversity protection and we should desperately search for tools to protect and restore habitats important for things like threatened biodiversity, ecosystem services, human well-being, and carbon sequestration.
The problem is making the logical leap between research that shows how large patches of habitat generally support more species to arguing that intensifying agricultural production will somehow create new habitats of quality. In the literature, this is called passive land sparing, an idea that just by increasing productivity, some signal, perhaps through prices maybe, is sent out to halt land clearing for agriculture. This is simply made up.
Let’s take the glasshouse example from the film. Every time the yield of peppers are increased, explain to me where the new forest area is increasing because of these gains? Draw me a line between more peppers harvested, to more land conserved? Where? How? And while we are at it, where are those peppers going? Who is eating them? Are they supporting the cultural and nutritional requirements of the world’s hungry somewhere? These are the important questions that the simple math of land sparing do not and cannot answer.
Intensification leads to rebound effects
Now, what does the evidence say about the effect of agricultural intensification on forest area? While land sparers, working from their models predict forest area should increase if agricultural yields increase, the empirical evidence of studies that look at changes in yield over time and compare that to forest area and quality over time, find that the very opposite is likely to occur. This is known as the rebound effect. In fact, two recent long-term multi-national studies confirm this. One study of 122 tropical nations over 15 yearsand one study of all global tropical dry forests over 20 years both found a strong association between increasing commodity production for export and forest area loss. The authors of the global study conclude:
This finding poses a major challenge to leveraging land sparing under current trends in global agriculture and highlights the importance of considering market dynamics when designing policy interventions aimed at fostering sustainable outcomes from intensification.
Increases in efficiency create a window for profits. The surest way to enhance those profits, is to take more land into production. Competition amongst farmers encourages more uptake of these expensive technological efficiency tools doubly incentivizing more production through expansion. In areas where farmers can take forest into production, they do. George Monbiot is concerned with ‘agricultural sprawl’. These and other studies show that intensifying production can be a leading driver of such a destructive process.
What’s really going on here is what I said at the beginning. The model obscures more than it reveals. Decisions about what to grow, where to grow it, and who to feed, are based on social and political factors, not yield biodiversity curves. There is no global counter of agricultural production that farmers are tuning into. They are not saying oh look, yields went up so I need to produce less, nor are decision makers saying look, I’m producing less so I need to take more land into production. This is clearly a model unsuited to deal with the power-laden decision structures of agricultural development.
The role of sparing on biodiversity is not settled
Next, let’s say Hidde gets his wish and land use policy is one of large habitat patches alongside areas of food production where, as Hidde has said, “yield is king.” While there are some conservation biologists like Andrew Balmford and Rhys Green (those interviewed in the film) that see this is as the best way forward, there are just as many whose experiments in the field suggests that biodiversity may decline in these circumstances. This is because, from a conservation biology perspective, the broader landscape matrix of habitat types are just as important as the size of the core habitat area for species persistence.
Species need landscape connectivity to persist. They need pathways for outmigration and immigration from other meta populations. The worry, here, is the isolation effect, when the quality of the land outside of a core habitat is so harsh to biodiversity, that the value of the habitat to support species persistence decreases.
Let’s say you have a nice forest biodiverse rich patch of habitat surrounded by, I don’t know, say a sea of wall to wall glasshouses, for example. The species cannot utilize this as habitat for dispersal, for food resources, or for anything really. Matters are made worse when these landscapes are dominated by monocultures with high pesticide and herbicide use. And when local extinctions occur, which they do all the time even in protected areas, there is less and less chance of that population to establish again. Local extinctions, in the isolation effect, become permanent extinctions, the very thing the film is concerned about.
And of course, a changing climate strongly influences the preferred range of many species. Patches of habitat surrounded by intensified production becomes even more disastrous for the long term persistence of species in a time of changing and unpredictable range shifts.
Costa Rica as a paragon of land sparing?
I was surprised to see the film showcase Costa Rica as a national example of the potential of a strong land sparing model. Costa Rica is of course well known for its aggressive and experimental forest policy. But its agricultural policy is notoriously known for the social and environmental harms stemming from single-mindedly pursuing a path of agricultural intensification for export markets.
A recent UNDP report found that the average use of pesticides in agriculture between 2012 and 2020 was 34.45 kilos per hectare. Compared to other OECD countries like Mexico, Chile, The US, Canada, Colombia, and Panama, Costa Rica applies by far the highest amount of pesticides per active ingredient per hectare. In 2014 6.5 times that of the US and Panama and 16 times higher than Mexico. Costa Rica incentivizes this export oriented production through tax waivers for agrochemical imports, leading to a loss of more than 22 million dollars of public revenue in 2018. Costa Rica invests close to 9 million dollars a year in treatment of ailments, disabilities and lost productivity associated with the high consumption of pesticides. On the production side, the report estimates that agricultural workers are exposed to 74kg of pesticides per year.
And who works in these fields of topical fruit destined for consumers in the Global North? Frequently the laborers in the industrial food system are members of marginalized groups, former farmers whose income was undercut by increased global trade. Thus the cycle is complete—intensification leading to food insecurity and cycles of precarity only for someone to eventually suggest to solve these problems we ought to produce more.
All these issues associated with forms of intensification, of course, go unaddressed in the film, but they raise the question the extent that land sparing may value biodiversity and yields over other dimensions such as human wellbeing, unequal distribution of environmental harms and the oppression of trade dependency. Karsten’s worry of Mordor may be more likely than film suggests.
But here is the kicker, studies that examine long-term persistence of biodiversity in Costa Rica find that while forest area has increased, the intensive, export-oriented, pesticide laden bananas and pineapples creates an overall landscape matrix of poor connectivity and habitat quality. And the result is that forest area increased because of forest policy, but bird, plant, and insect diversity is decreasing over time in areas associated with simplified, intensive agricultural production. The authors of the study conclude that forest policy must be coupled with an agricultural plan to diversify the agricultural matrix through biodiversity inclusive farming and reduce the reliance of expensive and toxic imports.
All agricultural production should be forced to answer the following questions. How do the farming practices support in situ and landscape biodiversity? Who is being fed? How does the production contribute to nutritional quality? Who is profiting from the production? What are the environmental and human livelihood implications of the production? Who gets to decide about the form and intensity of production? How resilient are the farming systems to the increasing likelihood of environmental change and disturbance?
We should be able to progress food system transformation by answering question like these in the multitude of social and economic contexts that shape the way agriculture harms our world and bodies. We don’t need the frame of land sparing, which claims to answer all of these questions through the singular narrow lens of yields.
I’ll end on a more philosophical note. I couldn’t help notice how the hymnal music at the end of the film as Karsten enters the primary forest for the first time reinforces the idea of “real nature” out there as Paradise. The film presents a clear boundary: nature is one thing and humans are another. The key to salvation here, is to reject that humans can ever harmonize with the earth. Of course, this a bizarre assertion. We are as much as we may try to think otherwise, organic beings whose long history has been one of social ecological entwinement.
The separation of humans and nature is of course a frame of mind, one that emerges from only some of the many diversity of cultures and peoples throughout history. When settlers explored the North American continent for the first time they marveled at the untrammeled wilderness and abundant biodiversity the encountered. They marveled at how they could run their horses through forests miraculously spaced out for their travel as if it was divinely arranged that way. Some saw it, as paradise. We now know that what settlers were seeing were highly complex managed landscapes; managed by people who wanted among many things abundant food. These landscapes were created through a dance of social practices and ecological forces, fine-tuned over time. The scale and type of management was so different than what the settlers were familiar with, they could only call it backwards and inefficient.
Let’s not make this mistake again and only see the salvation of the world through trying to separate humans and nature.
Andrew Balmford and Hidde, they want to represent the laudable goal of adhering to the “vote” from nature by following a model that says separate humans and nature. But what matters is not the presence or absence of human activity, but the relations of that activity. As much as it is appealing to reduce the land use question and the food system question to one of algebra, I implore you to reject the seductive simplicity.
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