Changing the agriculture and environment conversation

The land sharing/sparing debate has stagnated. Finding a way forward requires that we ask new questions and, crucially, focus on human well-being and ecosystem services.

One of the most critical problems of our time is guaranteeing food security for all while at the same time shrinking agriculture's overlarge environmental footprint. In environmental and agricultural circles, a debate has arisen as to the best way to do this. Some argue that achieving balance will require land sparing, while others argue that land sharing is a better solution. The former propose an agricultural landscape in which some land is set aside for wildlife and the rest farmed intensively for the highest possible yields; the latter propose an increase in farmed land, but use of wildlife-friendly techniques such as retaining hedgerows. This debate is being spurred on by increasing recognition of the role of agriculture in both poverty alleviation1,2 and environmental degradation3,4 and a sense that the political will to do something about it might be close at hand.

While the specific terms ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ were only first mentioned in the literature in 20055, people have been arguing about their relative merits for a much longer time6. Norman Borlaug claimed that the green revolution technologies implemented in the 1960s allowed more food to be grown on less land, leaving more land available for conservation7. This was refuted by others, who found that countries where yields were increasing were actually expanding agricultural land area8. This debate was eventually codified into the now-familiar land sharing/land sparing framework by Green et al., who developed hypotheses about when each strategy was most likely to be effective5.

These early debates were useful for focusing scientific and public attention on the linked issues of food production and environmental degradation. But now, this polarized debate, with its artificial and arbitrary binary endpoints, appears to be unresolvable, and has even become problematic in that it detracts attention from the real issues at hand. The way out of this debate towards a more productive conversation is to widen the lens with which we look at the problem. Instead of focusing only on the production of food and its impact on biodiversity, we must attend to human well-being in all its forms, and the role of ecosystem services in securing them.

Montérégie, in southern Quebec, is a region of mixed agriculture, forest, and urban and suburban development. The ecosystem services produced in the region include food (corn, soy, pork, milk, and more), freshwater, water purification, fuel-wood, carbon storage for climate regulation, flood regulation, outdoor recreation, an aesthetic and spiritually engaging landscape, and deer hunting. All of these services contribute to the high levels of human well-being experienced in the region. Image: ARNAUD DEGLETAGNE

A stalled debate

We have not been able to definitively conclude the sharing/sparing debate for several reasons. There has been relatively little quantification of the benefits and drawbacks of land sparing and land sharing, and great disagreement over how best to quantify these benefits and drawbacks. Which aspect of biodiversity is most useful? Which measures of food production are best suited to understand the issue? These are just two of the many questions that surround efforts to end the debate by providing a definitive answer. Those studies that have quantified aspects of the debate tend to focus on particular species in particular places. As a result, the scientific community lacks the ability to generalize across locations, measurements, and species. For example, Phalan et al. found land sparing worked best to promote biodiversity while maintaining high crop yields, but they only studied northern India and southwest Ghana, and measured the effects on bird species alone9. There is also the problem of applicability to other contexts: European agriculture, for example, takes a very different approach to that of other regions, and regional/taxa-specific studies do not inform us about other forms of wildlife or other benefits received from agriculture. In fact, scientific studies of the relative merits of land sparing and land sharing typically fail to account for many factors that could help generalize the results, such as site history, surrounding landscape, or the influence of scale on results.

Even if scientists were able to definitively quantify and answer the question of which strategy is best for both food production and biodiversity, this way of framing the debate leaves many more important questions unasked. The sharing/sparing debate focuses attention on food supply, rather than on important issues of food distribution, waste, poverty, and inequality, along with personal food choices that might help us tackle hunger and malnutrition, and ultimately, environmental degradation as well. A simple increase in food production — the focus of the sharing/sparing debate — will not guarantee food security, or even necessarily reduce hunger. Indeed, analysis suggests that enough calories are produced to feed the human population; they simply are not distributed appropriately10. Similarly, just because less land area is used to grow food, it does not mean that the ‘excess’ land will necessarily be used for conservation, or, if so-used, that it will be adequately protected.

The exclusion of these social factors from the sharing/sparing debate has led agricultural scientists, development economists, and ecologists to talk past each other ineffectively for decades. To address the linked issues of food security and the environment, we must reframe the debate with people at the centre of the conversation. We can do this by focusing on the manifold ways in which agricultural landscapes improve human well-being rather than seeing them solely as a means either to produce food or maintain biodiversity.

Moving toward solutions

Agricultural landscapes are multifaceted, and, importantly, multifunctional. Looking at a farming landscape, one sees not only food production, but also aesthetic beauty, opportunities for recreation, water purification, flood control, and carbon storage. Agricultural landscapes produce a wide variety of ecosystem services from which people derive well-being. Reducing these landscapes to the dichotomy of only biodiversity or food production misses the bigger picture of the many services that can improve human well-being. Creating this artificial binary management choice also risks reducing provision of these other ecosystem services, and subsequent reductions in human well-being, even if we do the best job possible at producing food or maintaining biodiversity. If we broaden the conversation from a debate about food production and biodiversity to one about human well-being, agricultural landscapes become important because of the central role they play in securing human well-being11, for example, by providing aesthetically appealing landscapes, helping to regulate disease and flooding, storing carbon, or purifying water.

The question then becomes not ‘How can we best manage landscape for biodiversity and agricultural production?’ but ‘How can we best improve the well-being of all people around the world, now and in the future?’ This re-framing of the question puts people and their well-being front and centre. In turn, it shows that two artificially opposed goals — the desire to lift people out of poverty by growing more food, and the need to protect the environment from the degradation sometimes caused by food production — are actually on the same side, because both help improve human well-being. There is, in fact, no debate.

This reframing of the dialogue from artificial debate to a shared question about well-being also changes the kind of science that is most needed. Although we can still address many questions important to sparing/sharing — ‘What is the role of landscape context in asking whether sharing or sparing leads to the best result for food production?’ ‘How can we better account for scale and time?’ and ‘What are the best ways to measure diversity in agricultural landscapes?’ — we have important new questions to answer. Now, we might ask, ‘What are the relative roles of natural and human capital in the resilient provision of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes?’ and ‘What are the roles of various ecosystem services in improving human well-being?’ In this new conversation, guaranteeing food security is as much about securing agricultural production itself as it is about sustaining the whole social–ecological system that supports it.

Addressing this new set of questions requires that science moves beyond simply better measures of food production and biodiversity, and probably even beyond issues of food security and food sovereignty, to consider all the benefits humans obtain from agricultural landscapes. For example, the provision of multiple ecosystem services, including food production, but also carbon storage, recreation, water flow, flood control, and disease regulation. And we must study, measure, and understand the way that agricultural landscapes produce these benefits at all scales, from global to local. This is a complex, and I would argue far more interesting, problem than simply determining whether land sparing or land sharing produces the most food and conserves the most biodiversity.

Concluding thoughts

How we frame the problem of feeding people while shrinking the environmental impact of agriculture will influence how we solve it. Make the question an artificial choice between sparing and sharing, and those become the only options for solutions. Indeed, addressing an artificial choice is likely to lead to an ‘artificial solution’, one that does not, in the end, secure all of the factors required for human well-being. The conversation about land sharing and land sparing has been useful for focusing attention on the intersection of food security and conservation, and many scientists have engaged with this issue, contributing to important scientific discoveries12. But now it is time to move on to a broader question, one that fully addresses the larger challenge of ensuring human well-being. This will require science that considers all the ecosystem services provided in agricultural landscapes, and that incorporates issues of governance, equity, poverty, and the other important social factors that contribute to food security and human well-being for nations and individuals.


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Author information


  1. Elena M. Bennett is in the McGill School of Environment and the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, 21111 Lakeshore Road, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec H9X 3V9, Canada.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elena M. Bennett.