Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This blog is part of the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog’s month-long series on Ecosystem Services.

Which side of the fence (a fence in a well managed field, of course) do you sit on in the land-sparing vs. land-sharing debate?

Researchers involved in the new Bridging Agriculture and Conservation Initiative, led by Bioversity International, are looking at this question from a research angle that has not been addressed fully before in the scientific community.

Example of a landscape that addresses both agriculture and conservation goals, Pokhara Valley, Nepal. Credit: S.Sthapit/LI-BIRD Example of a landscape that addresses both agriculture and conservation goals, Pokhara Valley, Nepal. Credit: S.Sthapit/LI-BIRD

To help us answer this question, we can already study and document examples like The Volcanica Central Talamanca Corridor in Costa Rica, one of several biological corridors in Central America that was created to ensure the movement of critically endangered species across the region. Conservation practices in this agricultural landscape contribute to conservation objectives. However, broadening the corridor effort beyond conservation to provide livelihood benefits and improved ecosystem services like clean water was the key to success in bringing this community together. In return, integrating biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration in Costa Rica has provided healthier and cheaper ways to make vital crops more resilient – for example, using live fences to help control coffee pests.

Land sharing vs. sparing

While there are nuances in scale and local context that are important, we feel that within agricultural landscapes, land sharing holds greater possibility for sustaining agricultural production in the long term, especially at small scales. Here’s why.

The world is facing the dual challenge of sustainably providing enough nutritious food for more than 9 billion people while conserving the natural resource base upon which we are all dependent. Solutions are needed – very soon.

The only way to move forward is to acknowledge this duality, which logically leads to the need to integrate agriculture and conservation objectives.

As the main driver of land conversion, biodiversity loss, and alteration of several global biogeochemical cycles (including nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon), agricultural landscapes and their ecosystems have to be part of the conservation agenda as we go forward. We must move toward agriculture that actively contributes to protecting biodiversity, storing carbon, cleaning water, and other ecosystem services.

What is really needed in this debate is greater nuance as to how land is shared. At very large scales, land-sparing allows for focusing agricultural activities on those portions of the landscape best suited to supporting production functions: access to water, fertile soils and proximity to market. Similarly designating areas for conservation ensures core habitat for wildlife not suited for cohabitation with humans is secured. This scale of perception also allows a greater focus on services provided by protected areas that can not be met by integrating conservation within agricultural areas and the integration of this understanding into the planning process.

At the scale of agricultural landscapes however, a land-sharing approach recognizes the contribution of conservation efforts to supporting agricultural production such as pollination and pest control services, and in securing the multiple benefit provided by these landscapes, clean water for example, The challenge for researchers is to demonstrate how managing biodiversity for these service to and from agriculture can contribute to increasing the productivity, value, and resilience of the farming system.

The scientists committed to Agriculture and Conservation Initiative are committed to working across disciplinary boundaries to develop a pragmatic understanding of what it means to reduce poverty, conserve biodiversity and food insecurity within the context of the planet’s boundaries and to detailing ways in which farmers, industry, consumers and government can achieve multiple benefits from sustainable farming practices. They call for better integration of agricultural and conservation objectives in the global effort to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the poor. They propose that the only means to sustainably feed a growing global population while protecting the natural resource base upon which we are all dependent is through greater ecological intensification of agricultural landscapes.

As we continue to debate land sharing, land sparing and new approaches to agriculture and conservation, let us remember to keep science and the lessons from our landscapes and ecosystem services at the forefront.

What are your thoughts on land sharing and land sparing? In what contexts and scales do you think agriculture and conservation can work together?



A thought provoking perspective on an argument (sparing vs. sharing) that still rages. As you say, land sparing at large scales on land that is unsuitable for agriculture, is an effective way of conserving some elements of biodiversity. What the land sparing argument rarely seems to address, however, is that vegetation associations, habitats and species are not randomly arrayed across the landscape. There are many vegetation types that will only occur on productive soils that are also highly suitable for agriculture. Similarly, there are many species that are reliant upon these vegetation types situated on gently sloping, deep soil land forms.

As demand for food and fiber grows, land sparing is rarely going to be a realistic option in highly productive landscapes that have yet to be agriculturally developed. However, under a carefully planned and well implemented land sharing regime at the farm or multiple farm scale, one can retain elements of native and semi-natural vegetation and habitats, and integrate them into production systems. Such an approach can fulfill a number of goals: i) habitats and species not generally catered for by the ‘national park type’ system can be conserved; ii) the close juxtaposition/integration of production land with areas of high ecological function, allows the provision of a range of ecosystem services (e.g. movement of predatory arthropods into crops) that will benefit production; iii) the integration of conservation and production in a practical sense, may change the sometimes adversarial relationship between farmers and conservationists.

Land sharing and biodiversity-driven ecosystem services for agriculture are inextricably linked; consequently the development and implementation of effective and rapid ways of measuring ecosystem service delivery (and communicating findings) are of paramount importance from poverty alleviation, food security and biodiversity conservation perspectives.

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