Mechanisms to increase agricultural productivity and spare land for conservation


“Green rice field in Chiang Rai, Thailand” by punsayaporn

Habitat loss driven by expanding agricultural land is a major driver of biodiversity loss. Two, seemingly opposing, strategies have been proposed as a way of reconciling increased demand for agricultural production and conservation of biodiversity, and in turn preventing further conversion of natural habitat to farming: land sparing (the intensification of agriculture to set aside land for conservation) and land sharing (the integration of farming and conservation on agricultural land such as eco-agriculture).

Up until now the land sparing/land sharing debate has largely revolved around theoretical arguments. Much of the support for land sparing has come from using data to maximise the number of species conserved under a fixed level of agricultural production in various settings, with the finding that more species are negatively affected by agriculture than benefit from it. But, in general, little of the discussion has focused on the way in which land sparing might be achieved. Now in a recent paper in Science by Phalan et al, the way in which land sparing could become a practical approach to biodiversity conservation and improved agricultural productivity is explained in more detail.

Land sparing as an approach has been criticised for failing to consider situations where agricultural intensification has stimulated expansion of farming rather than protection of land for conservation. Proponents of the approach acknowledge this phenomena and the fact that rising demands and increased productivity can increase the “opportunity cost of conservation”. To tackle this significant obstacle authors introduce four mechanisms that aim to link agricultural productivity and biodiversity or habitat conservation, and thus avoid rebound effects of increased yields driving growth in the agricultural industry rather than sparing land.

  • Land use zoning. By zoning areas for agriculture or conservation, expansion can be limited, which may motivate landholders to improve productivity and efficiency on existing agricultural land. There is the potential for habitat to be converted to farming outside of the zoned area though, otherwise known as displacement or leakage. The success of Costa Rica in halving deforestation of mature forests by preventing agricultural expansion onto forests through zoning, and the subsequent increase in fruit production, is given as an example.
  • Economic instruments, such as payments, land taxes, and subsidies. Such instruments can have conditions built in to protect habitat for biodiversity but they are also notoriously difficult to implement and maintain so that all parties benefit. Considered a successful example, the incentive programme jointly developed by herders and local government in the Spiti Valley of Himalayan India to set aside land for snow leopard prey in exchange for payment and technical assistance has, within the first four years of the project, reduced the amount of livestock killed by snow leopards by two-thirds and reduced the amount of snow leopards killed down to zero.
  • Spatially strategic deployment of technology, infrastructure, or agronomic knowledge. Essentially this means delivering agricultural extension to areas in which we want to intensify production and not to those areas we want to protect. This strategy would seem to support inequality, however, and often people in very remote and perhaps biologically important areas, who rely on the land for their food are desperately in need of technological or technical assistance. Authors do acknowledge that the ethics of such an approach are difficult and additional social protection for groups marginalised or excluded from agricultural assistance might be needed. Also discussed is the need to increase yields of staple crops over export or luxury crops as a way of motivating land sparing. This is because demand for such crops, despite price changes, is relatively steady and this approach but would presumably also better support food security.
  • Standards and certification. Similar to voluntary certification schemes that promote “wildlife-friendly farming”, certification could be used to increase production sustainably while also protecting habitat. Such schemes are particularly effective where farmers are already organised into groups such as cooperatives. The Ibis rice scheme in northern Cambodia is cited as an example. Here farmers receive a price premium and technical assistance in exchange for their village-level protection of certain habitats. The project is considered a success due to its impact on reducing deforestation and increasing rice yields.

While the paper goes some way to addressing gaps in the land sparing argument, it fails to consider those instances of zoning or subsidies or technology that have not resulted in land sparing but have incentivised agricultural expansion. There is also little mention as to how these linking mechanisms have impacted communities in the area, for example who benefits from such interventions? As authors acknowledge, expansion of land area for agriculture leading to biodiversity loss is a particular concern in the tropics where many households rely on agriculture for their livelihoods and the issues of poverty and food insecurity can be significant, and yet such issues, in particular the links between agricultural production and food accessibility, are not addressed.

It is acknowledged that many factors need to be considered for land sparing to have the intended result, for example access to technology, knowledge, appropriate markets, support for family farms and coordination between sectors, many of which are missing in rural areas of developing countries. There are many ways in which land sparing could theoretically be achieved but ultimately governments, landholders and both the agricultural and conservation sectors have to drive the agenda forward and cooperate with each other. Overall, that land sparing is being discussed in terms of how it can be practically approached is promising. But that it is being presented as our only option is false (better land allocation for example has been found to deliver more benefits), and much more needs to be done to discover how to overcome the many obstacles to implementing land sparing in real life and the many pitfalls that could lead not only to failure but to further habitat conversion to farming.


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