I am proud to be one of ~20 scientists, headed up by ecologist Joern Fischer, who recently published a Letter to the Editor* in Science. Our letter, “Conservation: Limits of Land Sparing”, critiques an article by Ben Phalan and colleagues on the “Land-sparing vs. Land-sharing” “debate” published by Science a tiny bit back. Joern has consistently emphasized an approach to socioecological problems that is grounded in clear-headed and non-balkanized assessments (i.e., avoiding “black or white thinking” and intellectual polarization).

I find myself unsatisfied with Phalan et al.’s response (perhaps unsurprisingly). The key element to me is that this entire conversation is somewhat misframed. Although agriculture is more or less the primary driving force for biodiversity loss, it is not the ultimate cause; agricultural expansion, hunger, and biodiversity loss are all proximate manifestations of the underlying profligate and unsustainable institutions designed for profit over almost any other motive. As ecological economist Herman Daly and many others have pointed out many times, there is little concept of “sustainable scale” in mainstream contemporary governance, policy, or economics. That is, there is no reason to think agricultural expansion will decrease, regardless of the yields achieved, without explicit policy action to limit and control its expansion. And in a world with enough calories to feed everyone comfortably, it is unethical to focus merely on production without regard to hunger (whose root causes lie in a lack of economic access and political agency).

Phalan et al. acknowledge and encourage thought about direct policy action and change, and argue that no matter how much food we produce, trade-offs with production and biodiversity with regards to landscape use will have to be made. While I broadly agree with this, the issue to me is that the whole framework they set up seems to have little bearing on the framework currently used by policy-makers, land owners, or the public in making land use decisions. To argue that a production/biodiversity trade-off should be part of the sociopolitical framework is insufficient without substantial engagement and thought about how the current frameworks are set up, and why, and studying how they may effectively be changed. I would assert that is rarely-to-never true that scientific evidence in and of itself changes policy in the short-term. (In the long-term, it probably has an indeterminately large role in shaping cultural thought.) Immediate or medium-term policy change comes from engaging with current actors and addressing their needs, compromising between different values, and convincing them of certain basic elements (for example, the impossibility of indefinite economic and material expansion). No number of journal articles on possible trade-offs between production and biodiversity will force policy-makers to make that link; scientists must be directly and actively involved in the iterative practice of policy design, evaluation, and discussion, with the public and with policy-makers.

At base, my issue with this whole debate is that both agricultural expansion and biodiversity/ecosystem conservation are more related to sociopolitical factors within countries and regions than they are to each other. Linking them together risks a sleight-of-hand where not only certain economic nuances are under-analyzed, but the sociopolitical context, the social institutions upon which land-use decisions are predicated, are minimized or ignored. We know it is possible to have higher productivity and higher conversion of land to agriculture; lower productivity and lower conversion of land to agriculture; higher productivity and low conversion; low productivity and high conversion. The fact that there is not a consistent correlation between productivity and conversion does not seem to have slowed a cottage industry of this type of analysis. And the notion that food security and food sovereignty must be at the foundations of rational and ethical decisions about production seems less recognized still. It is my opinion that we must not continue conversations about production without considering malnutrition and the lack of food sovereignty; we must not ignore the persistence of hunger in the face of plenty, the key roles of women’s rights and education in both productivity and improvements in food security, and the fact that greater productivity may have no effect on hunger or even promote it (through decreasing prices hurting small farmers, who make up a majority of the world’s poor and hungry–e.g., “with bulging food-grain stocks, actual food and calorie consumption has been declining in rural India”–M. H. Suryanarayana).

Whether or not a given piece of land gets converted, whether or not a young girl can get an adequate or superior education and has effective political rights, whether or not a people are able to realize food security and sovereignty for all, how effectively a conserved area is protected–all of these depend on social institutions and complex interplays of politics, resources, economics, ecology, local context, and history. Frankly, considering the key role of inequality in productivity, conservation and food security researchers would seem better served by a “women-empowering vs. productivity-empowering” debate or something of that type, though of course such a simple formulation would be at least equally problematic in the end.

The information Phalan et al. provide to the debate can contribute usefully to policy. But to me, it focuses on epiphenomena of problems in biodiversity, food, and production, to the exclusion of the underlying structures. I still can’t understand a continued focus on productivity vs. land conversion when, by all accounts, the correlations between the two are positive, negative, or non-existent, as determined in large part by policy and context. Policies to help one can hurt the other, help the other, or have no effect on the other. Rather than trying to smoosh two objectives that do affect each other, but are not causal to each other, together–trying to figure out when the correlation is favorable and how to take advantage of that–why not focus on ways that the needs of both people and biodiversity can be addressed through institutional change? The debates and struggles to do that need far more attention, and depend on far more factors, than is considered in the sharing/sparing debate.

*Paywall’d! And as it’s a letter, no abstract. Sorry to those of you without institutional or personal access. I would be happy to provide individual copies on request.

One thought

  1. Interesting thoughts, Jahi, which go (of course!) well beyond what we were able to say in our short letter. But the gist is the same! I have just posted something in my blog, too, which your readers may find interesting:
    My take on Phalan et al. is different from yours, but only slightly; I wholeheartedly agree with you that indeed, we need to look at the underlying social challenges at a much more fundamental level, and address equity and poverty issues at the same time (because they are inextricably linked).

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