This POSTnote explores two approaches to managing land for balancing nature conservation with sustainable food production: 1) Land sharing integrates the objectives of agriculture and benefits to wildlife on the same land; 2) Land sparing separates intensive farming areas from protected natural habitats at larger scales.
B. Balancing Food Production and Wildlife
Given that it is predicted that human population is to grow rapidly, it is a key challenge to find a balance between efficient and productive agriculture to ensure food security and conserving biodiversity. Agriculture is highly dependent on benefits derived from nature, known as “ecosystem services”, such as pollination, pest control and nutrient cycling. In other words, biodiversity is essential to agriculture, but agriculture intensification is also a major driver of biodiversity decline. Within this context, there is debate about the best way of balancing food production and wildlife protection.
In order to optimise land use, two approaches have been proposed – land sharing and land sparing. Both approaches include elements of nature and agriculture, but integrate them at different spatial scales. In land sharing, nature and agriculture are normally mixed together in small parcels in a heterogeneous landscape. In land sparing, the two elements are separated at larger scales.
Land sharing aims to meet both agricultural and conservation needs within the same area. This is to make existing farmland as hospitable to wildlife as possible by reducing pesticide and fertiliser inputs and retaining habitats such as tress, hedges and ponds. Land sharing aims to create a multifunctional landscape that attempts to integrate food production, nature conservation, biofuel production and other ecosystem services. Such approach is likely to limit yields, so more land area is required to produce a given amount of food.
Land sparing attempts to increase yields on existing agricultural land in order to make it possible for other land to be “spared” for nature conservation. In theory, this could provide larger areas of land dedicated for wildlife. There are two key components to land sparing:
• Sustainable intensification of agriculture;
• Protection of existing natural habitats, or restoration of natural habitat where it has previously been lost.
Sustainable Intensification (SI)
SI has been defined as ”producing more output from the same area of land while reducing the negative environmental impacts”. This allows the same yield to be obtained from a smaller area of land leaving other areas to be “spared” for nature. Ecologists advocating the land sparing approach have emphasised that SI should not be misinterpreted as paving the way for business-as-usual intensification of agriculture, but approaches need to be developed to ensure they are sustainable. Some people worry that higher yields from land may increase market pressure to convert “spared” land to agriculture. Moreover, yields may also become a factor of whether a land is sparred or not. It is therefore clear that for land sparing to work, there would need to be effective systems and policy structures to link SI both with the improved protection of “spared” land and restoration of a variety of habitats.
Habitat Restoration and Re-wilding
One concept included in land sparing is to protect remaining natural habitats, but where they are degraded or biodiversity loss has occurred, it may be necessary to restore actively or re-wild habitats naturally. Traditionally, conservation in the UK has focussed on conserving specific habitats and species through the Biodiversity Action Plan system. Active management to restore specific habitats under these schemes has been a success: a recent review of global restoration projects showed an average increase in biodiversity of 44% over a range of time frames. In a recent government-commissioned review of England’s wildlife sites, it specified that habitat restoration and recreation were key recommendations. The EU is also committed to restoring 15% of degraded habitats through its Biodiversity Strategy.
Another approach to conservation is to recreate wilderness and to allow natural patterns and processes to take over. Although re-wilding requires less active management and costs less than habitat restoration, the process is often slower to produce biodiversity benefits and results are more unpredictable.
C. Current Approaches to Managing Nature
Land Sparing: Protected Area Networks
The EU Habitats and Birds Directives forms the cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy and set out strategies and targets including the creation of a connected network of protected sites. Across Europe and the UK there are different types of protected areas with varying levels of protection. For instance, the Natura 2000 network is made up of Special Protected Areas and Special Areas of Conservation.
Land Sharing: Agri-Environment Schemes
The main agri-environment scheme (AES) in England, Environmental Stewardship is more of the land sharing scheme. In 1992 the EU first introduced AES, where farmers are paid to manage their land to benefit wildlife and since 2003 it has been part of the Common Agricultural Policy. AESs in England have been a major component of government policy for twenty years. Although some local benefits have been demonstrated, overall farmland biodiversity continues to decline.
Natural Environment White Paper
In 2011 the Government published its first Natural Environment White Paper. It recognises that the level of demand for food production and land are increasing and outlines the Government’s vision for the natural environment, shifting the emphasis from piecemeal conservation action towards a more integrated landscape scale approach. Although land sharing and land sparing are not explicitly discussed in the Natural Environment White Paper, the Government has committed to identifying ways to increase food production that also improve the environment. Defra is doing this through the Green Food Project which brings together representatives from farming, food industries and NGOs.
Potential Policy Tools
Whether it is land sharing or land sparing, a number of policy tools would be required for implementation. These could include market based measures and changing subsidies:
Market Based Measures
As food prices rise, the demand for land for food production increases and the costs of conservation will increase. Market approaches such as Biodiversity Offsetting may be a way to avoid rising costs while protecting biodiversity.
Biodiversity offsetting is usually a market-based conservation tool that measures negative impacts on biodiversity and compensates for the loss through improvements elsewhere. In the context of land sparing, biodiversity offsetting principles could be used to link agricultural intensification to protection and/or restoration of “spared” land. Defra considers biodiversity offsetting to have the potential to deliver compensation for biodiversity loss from development in an effective way and is currently undertaking six biodiversity offsetting pilot schemes across the country. Systems for biodiversity offsetting could include establishment of habitat banks (e.g. the UK-based Environment Bank), which trade in corporate responsibility credits and habitat restoration credits.
In terms of land sparing, there are currently no market mechanisms to ensure that a doubling of wheat yield in one area will spare land elsewhere. Another concern is that once biodiversity on intensively farmed land is lost, there could be pressure to change the rules and allow the remaining protected areas to be converted to agriculture.
Re-shaping Government Subsidy Schemes
Given that billions of Euros invested in agri-environment schemes, it should be possible to re-shape funding schemes to reward high-yielding farmers who invest in large scale habitat restoration in support of a land sparing approach. A reverse auctioning approach where farmers bid for contracts for environmental management projects (for example, to create a wetland) can allow farmers to choose activities that they have specific interests in. Pennsylvania, US has been successfully using reverse auctioning in reducing pesticide and fertiliser. It is believed that reverse auctioning has the potential to improve value for money although there are concerns over potentially high transaction costs.
D. Best Approach
One high profile case-study in two tropical landscapes showed that the land sparing approach was the most efficient form of protecting wildlife in frontier forest landscapes. However, this does not mean that land sparing is always the best approach. The findings can not be extrapolated to other landscape types such as open steppe habitats, wetlands or the highly modified habitats found across much of lowland England. For example, land sparing is not appropriate where wildlife is dependent on an agricultural practice, such as hay meadows. In the UK, 28 bird species are classified as “farmland birds”, which are reliant on farmland habitat. In addition, different groups of species operate at different scales: what constitutes enough land spare for a beetle may not be enough to provide food and nesting habitats for a bird. In the UK, some scholars believe that a 2 square kilometres scale at least is likely to be most appropriate, especially for avian species. In reality, land sharing and land sparing approaches are likely to be used to deliver different outcomes:
• Land sharing is most likely to benefit widespread generalist species and ecosystem services (such as pollination). It is also more likely to benefit species that have survived a history of land use change.
• Land sparing is more likely to benefit habitat specialists (including rare species) which are only found in a few protected locations. It is also more likely to be successful in protecting species that are sensitive even to low intensity agriculture.
Europe and the UK
Different groups of biodiversity will be protected under land sharing and land sparing scenarios. In a “frontier landscape” where forest is being cut down to make way for agriculture, forest specialist species may be conserved by protecting the original forested habitat. However across much of Western Europe, it is harder to make this distinction clearly, because many species rely heavily on semi-natural farmed habitats. The EU can currently be considered to have a nested scenario of sharing and sparing: the UK has intensive agriculture, while parts of Eastern Europe have been “spared” intensification. However, within the agricultural landscape of the UK there are also pockets of spared semi-natural habitats (e.g. wetlands) .
• Currently the conservation of biodiversity in the UK uses a combination of agri-environment schemes and nature reserves;
• Varying landscapes across Europe may call for different approaches. Current CAP funding primarily rewards land sharing through agri-environment schemes;
• Land sharing involves two key components: sustainable intensification of farmed land, and restoration of “spared” areas for nature;
• Land sharing and sparing contain different strategies, therefore with different implications to the types of biodiversity and habitats they protect;
• There is ongoing debate as to whether the UK has the appropriate combination of land sparing and land sharing to optimise the balance of nature and agriculture to halt biodiversity loss.