Land sparing beats land sharing for both food and fauna

Producing lots of food while protecting biodiversity is a tough balance, but a new study shows the limits of wildlife-friendly farming – Published on The Guardian, by Damian Carrington, September 2, 2011.

In land sharing, all the land in a region is farmed, but using wildlife friendly techniques which may dent yields a little. This happens in Europe where the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) rewards farmers for giving a helping hand to animals, birds and plants that share their land, by protecting hedgerows, leaving some trees and strips for flowers and beetles. 

In land sparing, some land is farmed intensively to maximise yields while other land is left entirely alone and protected as a nature reserve. But which approach gives the most food for the least harm to biodiversity?

By examining the fate of 600 species of birds and trees across farmland and natural habitats in northern India and southwest Ghana, Cambridge University’s Ben Phalan and his colleagues have shown land sparing works best, especially for the most threatened species. The same amount of food was produced in all their scenarios, but land sharing harmed wildlife more.

It’s an important result, published in Science, because it is the first use of a scientific method that allows the consideration of the two vital issues together: increasing crop yields and protecting biodiversity. “Trying to get both those from the same land is going to be very difficult,” says Phalan and much more difficult than people have often thought. He adds that, while food is of course an essential, we also depend on biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides for survival, particularly in the poorest parts of the world.

So should Europe and other developed regions abandon wildlife-friendly farming in favour of setting up nature reserves? Would the CAP’s vast budget for land sharing schemes – €34.5bn from 2007-13 – be better spent on reserves, under the reforms now being discussed?

The answer is we don’t know, because the balance of costs and benefits between land sparing or sharing will depend on location, and the situation in the tropics and subtropics is likely to be quite different to that at higher latitudes. Charles Godfrey, at Oxford University, points out that in the Mediterranean region, rich biodiversity has existed for thousands of years in an agricultural setting (though I wonder how the richness compares to that before the first farmers tamed the land) … (full text).

Link: Viewing cable 09ADDISABABA2900: Ethiopia seeks dramatic change in agricultural land use, published on food crisis and the global land grab, August 26, 2011.

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