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Limits to agricultural land for retaining acceptable levels of local biodiversity


Several studies have proposed maximum allowable areas of cropland (12.6–15.18% of terrestrial area) as environmental sustainability requirements, yet none have so far considered the minimum biodiversity levels required to support ecosystem functioning at acceptable levels. Here, we use a decision tree-based optimization model to estimate the maximum area of cropland and pasture that would meet—or come closest to meeting—the acceptable levels of local biodiversity proposed in the literature (90% local species abundance and 80% local species richness compared with an undisturbed baseline). We model four scenarios under which we vary two key sources of uncertainty: the maximization function and the potential of secondary vegetation to maintain biodiversity. The model finds that a maximum of 4.62–11.17% of the global ice-free land can be allocated to cropland (and 7.86–15.67% to pasture) to meet these biodiversity constraints—a lower level than was suggested in previous studies. The results are very sensitive to the minimum acceptable biodiversity values and the biodiversity response factors used, but the size of the disparity between current cropland area and our results suggests that actions to limit or reduce the area dedicated to agriculture should feature more prominently in policy discussions.

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Fig. 1: A comparison of maximum acceptable global cropland levels.
Fig. 2: The sensitivity of maximum cropland levels to minimum biodiversity requirements and biodiversity response factors.
Fig. 3: Transgression of the sustainability gap in world subecoregions, measured as the gap-to-reference percentage.
Fig. 4: Transgression of the sustainability gap in world subecoregions measured as the gap-to-total land percentage.
Fig. 5: Forest cover in selected biomes in 2015 and under minimum acceptable biodiversity levels.

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Data availability

The datasets used to generate the land use/land use intensity maps at the subecoregion level, as well as the biodiversity response factors, are freely available in the sources referenced above. Additional data generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

The code can be made available for replication purposes by the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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A.U.-L. acknowledges support from the UCL ISR Doctoral Studentship. A.U.-L. thanks T. Newbold (UCL CBER) and I. Butnar (UCL ISR) for helpful exchanges when producing an earlier version of the paper. T. Newbold also helped with the original design of the study. G.M.M. acknowledges the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) programme supported by the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ programme (grant no. 205200/Z/16/Z).

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A.U.-L. conceived the study idea, collected and analysed the data, and wrote the original draft. A.U.-L., G.M.M. and P.E. reviewed and edited the manuscript. P.E. supervised the study.

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Correspondence to Arkaitz Usubiaga-Liaño.

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Supplementary discussion, Tables 1–3, Figs. 1–13 and references 1–7

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Usubiaga-Liaño, A., Mace, G.M. & Ekins, P. Limits to agricultural land for retaining acceptable levels of local biodiversity. Nat Sustain 2, 491–498 (2019).

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