Knowledge for better food systems

Land-sharing vs. land-sparing debate – moving towards a more constructive conversation about agriculture and the environment?

MariePersson's picture

We are opening this forum discussion to encourage a debate, and hear reflections from our diverse group of members, on a recent article discussing the land-sharing versus land-sparing debate. It argues that this debate has stagnated and provides ideas about how we can move forward and break with the overly reductionist ‘food vs. biodiversity’ discourse that pervades agricultural and environmental thought and move towards a holistic approach focused on maximising human well-being.

The article Changing the agriculture and environment conversation (which was summarised in our newsletter) argues that agricultural scientists, development economists, and ecologists have talked past each other ineffectively for decades. This is mainly because important social factors, such as food distribution, waste, poverty, and inequality, along with personal food choices are left out of the debate, despite their importance for determining whether or not increased land availability will in fact lead to increased biodiversity conservation and whether increases in food production will in fact lead to increased food security.

Some other points of critique of previous studies:

  • “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.”
  • “…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.”

The article argues that we need to widen the discussion and reframe the question, moving from a simplistic focus on how agricultural landscapes improve food production and biodiversity to highlighting the many ways in which agricultural landscapes improve human well-being (for example, by providing aesthetically appealing landscapes, helping to regulate disease and flooding, storing carbon, or purifying water.) The two sides can in this way be joined, as both the endeavour of lifting people out of poverty by growing more food, and the need to protect the environment from degradation, help improve human well-being.

We want to hear your thoughts and reflections after reading this article

  1. To what extent do you agree with the points made in this article?
  2. How might we draw out actionable points from the author’s suggestions?
  3. What do you think is the way forward to create a more constructive discussion?


Share below your answers to these questions, and any other thoughts you have on the topic.

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For more articles and reports discussing land-sharing and/or land-sparing see our research library collection on this topic here.

efrison's picture
Submitted by efrison on

Elena Bennett is right to say that the land sparing/land sharing debate is overly simplifying the real issue and that what really matters is seeing which types of agriculture and environmental management provide the best outcomes on all the dimensions that matter for long-term human well-being. That means addressing not only the economic (productivity) and environmental (conservation) objectives, but also ensuring that the model of production delivers good nutrition and health, social equity and fulfils cultural and spiritual needs as well. The recent IPRS-Food report entitled “From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems” (  is addressing this issue and demonstrates what kind of agriculture is best positioned to provide the best outcomes on these multiple dimensions. We should note, however, that the report shows the serious problems and limitations of industrial agriculture which is based on the land sparing approach, while the diversified agroecological systems that are proposed in the report are taking a land sharing approach, but go much beyond that in order to deliver on all dimensions.

Emile FRISON, PhD Chair, International Scientific Committee on Sustainable Food Systems, Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation Phone: (39) 335 22 30 13 E-mail:

Adrian Muller's picture

The article by Bennet is an interesting and important contribution to this debate. Here, I may add some further observations.

First, framing the debate as suggested via the common goal of human welfare aligns sparing and sharing approaches – as both their goals are part of human welfare. However, there are trade-offs between food production and biodiversity, and those do not vanish by reframing as Bennet does. It rather changes from the quarrel between two opposing solutions to a problem (How to deliver much biodiversity for a given amount of food?) to the problem of weighting them when aggregating for a common goal (How important are biodiversity and food production for human wellbeing?). This makes the trade-offs less explicit and may rather put biodiversity on a weaker position, as it is framed as a means to the end of human well-being only. In contrast, in the sharing/sparing debate, biodiversity could always have been seen as a means in itself as well (which differentiation is less important for food production, as such is by definition for human wellbeing and not a goal in itself). 

Second, one may frame the sparing/sharing debate not via biodiversity being on separate areas or embedded in agricultural areas, but rather via the question whether “intensive conventional” agricultural production systems or “agro-ecological” ones (we could also choose other terms) lead to more biodiversity (however measured). Then it is about comparing the performance of these two approaches to agricultural production. Then, sparing/sharing is one aspect of the debate on which agricultural production system performs better and can inform this debate, but does not get the weight it has now.

Third, also this suggestion would neglect the issue of food distribution and so on and would focus on production. But I think it is legitimate to pose this question on this level, neglecting these aspects. They provide crucial context for assessing these production systems (of sparing/sharing approaches) and the impacts they may have after implementation, but it is still legitimate to ask how they would perform under certain simplifications and assumptions on this social context. Like this, the sparing/sharing aspect would serve as one indicator covering a certain aspect of sustainability, and other indicators would have to be chosen to complement on other aspects.  

Thus, it is about identifying the relevant question; Bennet answers that it is about how to increase human welfare; I think that this is somewhat too aggregate. I would thus rephrase it via the question on the sustainability performance of different agricultural production systems, using sparing/sharing as one aspect among many others to be considered.

hahgreenfield's picture

I'm glad someone pointed out what seems like a key flaw in this article, which is that by reframing biodiversity as part of a wider set of functions that agriculture can contiribute to human well-being it becomes only valuable insofar as it contributes to that end. Many conservationists would argue that biodiversity should be conserved regardless of whether it contributes diereclty or measurably to human well-being. Conversely it is not clear that biodiversity per se necessarily equates to clear ecosystem services or natural capital.

Ben Phalan's picture
Submitted by Ben Phalan on


I’ll start with the positive. I agree that this is not about a single question: there is a wide range of important, related, yet distinct questions that need to be asked about how we manage land in the 21st century – as Adrian Muller points out, not just for human wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of the millions of other species with which we share the planet.

However, I disagree that the land sparing-land sharing literature has been deficient in raising these questions. The framework developed by Green et al. (2005) started with one set of questions, about how to reconcile conserving populations of wild species with food production. The question has never been “is land sparing or land sharing better?” Nor is it seen correctly as a repetition of old debates between industrial and agro-ecological farming. Nor is it about condoning increased food production (the framework was a response to the recognition that increasing food production is perhaps the greatest current threat to biodiversity). Instead, it was framed initially as asking what sort of farming would be best for species persistence, and has developed since then as a heuristic device for understanding the implications of a wide range of possible landscape scenarios for a wide range of specific outcomes (“better for what?”).

Analysing land-use choices in this way has given us some very useful information. Quantifying outcomes has highlighted the serious limitations of supposedly wildlife-friendly methods for conserving the species in most need of help, and the importance of considering how much land is used to produce food. Of course, measuring density-yield curves for individual species does not tell us what social model of farming to aim for, or what political system will be most effective in managing land appropriately. Rather than seeing the results of such work as being in competition because they seem to come up with different answers, it would be more productive to work on how to integrate them.

For example, if we know that conserving the most threatened species in a region depends primarily on minimising the land area of farming and conserving as much habitat as possible, and we know that loss of land rights and autonomy is one of the biggest concerns for a smallholder community, can we find ways to support that community to assert its rights while at the same time producing food in such a way as to avoid further deforestation?

Rather than “move on” from the land sparing-land sharing framework, let’s continue to build on it, and adapt it to incorporate ever more of the complexities of real-world decisions.

joernfischer's picture

When I first came across this online debate, I thought “Oh no, another discussion on land sparing – do we really need this?” And my intention was to ignore it. It’s only after several colleagues encouraged me to contribute that I changed my mind. I think there is a whole range of reasons why it is indeed time to “move on”. The framework on land sparing versus land sharing has perhaps given us some useful insights – most importantly it has put back in focus the fundamental importance of strictly protected areas for biodiversity conservation, especially for rare or range-restricted species. But as I argue below, beyond this message I think the framework has reached its potential.

So, what about protected areas? In theory, we have known the importance of protected areas for many decades. But, let’s give some credit to advocates of land sparing – perhaps the vital importance of protected areas had occasionally got lost in the 1990s, when the focus increasingly shifted to biodiversity conservation in farmland. Especially in frontier landscapes – where land clearing is rampant – the message that we must ensure there are sufficient protected areas needs to be heard. I think this is an important point that we can take from the sparing versus sharing framework.

What about beyond this message? Beyond this, I argue that the sparing versus sharing framework leads us astray for at least three reasons.

First, the land sparing framework focuses on food production, not food security. However, food production and malnourishment are weakly linked. “Meeting rising demand” (which is often mentioned hand in hand with a focus on land sparing – though not by the more reflected advocates) therefore is not a meaningful goal. Especially when global commodity crops are involved, it often feeds the wants of the wealthy (including those of us already overweight), not the needs of the poor.

Second, the land sparing framework depends on a link between intensification and protected area establishment. Such links rarely exist, although admittedly they can, and perhaps should, be actively fostered.

And third, the land sparing framework represents a simplification of reality into two dimensions – production and biodiversity. This over-simplifies real-world complexity to a point that is analytically elegant, but of doubtful practical value.

From my perspective, much would be gained by employing a social-ecological systems perspective, and by moving beyond a dichotomous framing of black versus white. We don’t need sharing or sparing. We quite evidently need both. The question is how much of which will work best in which context – and this is a question that cannot be answered by simple analytical models, but only by contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings.

Clive Mitchell's picture



I agree with much of what Elena Bennett says.  Solving the 'problem' of food and nature must rest on how food systems interact with nature and vice versa. 

Land-sparing/sharing has certainly been a useful framework to analyse aspects of the debate - one that I still find useful, as much policy and practice can be understood in these terms.  Matters of scale are important.  For example, in Europe, agri-environment schemes are often advanced as evidence of 'land sharing' - but in practice most of the measures are on field margins or less productive areas of land so (arguably) represent land sparing on a finer scale.  There is still a polarisation of land for production and land for nature.

One thing that did strike me about the article, is that there are parallels with the position on utilitarian and intrinsic values in conservation circles.  Chan and others (2016) bring some welcome fresh insights to this through their discussion on relational values.  Whatever we might think about intrinsic and utilitarian values, neither alone or together account for our actions, because they omit the important fact that how we act depends on what we think others will think of our actions.

And how we draw the boundaries around 'caring' - which groups we identify with and those we reject - defines our 'us' and 'them' or how connected we feel to nature versus it being some 'other'.  These boundaries define what is more important or less important to us, what's a priority and what's not - and therein lie the roots of most conflicts in conservation.

It's time to move the debate on

Chan KMA et al (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.  PNAS, vol 113 (6),  1462–1465 (

Clive Mitchell Strategy Development Scottish Natural Heritage Battleby Perth PH1 3EW Email

David Williams's picture

I do slightly understand Joern Fischer's frustration with this debate – it's been going for a while and a call from one side or the other to "reframe" or "move on" from the sharing/sparing framework comes up every couple of years. I do, however, think these discussions have been useful for refining our views and working out exactly what it is that we do or do not like about different framings of this problem. So we should persevere! 

Myself, Tom Finch (RSPB) and Erasmus zu Ermgassen (University of Cambridge) have written a more formal response on the Nature Eco & Evo community site, if you're interested, so I'll keep things brief here. I think we all agree that a focus solely on food production and biodiversity is inadequate, but thanks to the sharing/sparing framework we do now have a much better idea of the relationships between different farming systems and biodiversity across the world. These data will be useful irrespective of how we move forward. 

What I would love to see is for someone to actually come up with an alternative framework and, vitally, to apply it. To collect high quality data on multiple metrics of a socio-ecological system and to analyse them so that we can understand how different farming systems will affect these metrics. Which systems will be best for biodiversity? Which will maximise food security and sovereignty? Which maximise both local and diffuse ecosystem services? We know the questions we want answered and Green et al's models allow us to answer one of them. We now need people with expertise in these different fields to come up with the data and analyses that allow us to answer the others.

A couple of caveats: 

1) If someone has performed Joern's "contextualized, interdisciplinary studies that take into account the complex social-ecological realities in different settings" then that is amazing and I'm sorry for having missed them! Please send them my way!

2) My PhD was supervised by Rhys Green and Andrew Balmford; I've worked closely with Ben Phalan; and used the sharing/sparing framework for my PhD research. So I may have vested interests in defending it!

vega's picture
Submitted by vega on

Clearly the plethora of articles that apply the Land Sparing vs. Land Sharing concepts indicates that in a certain part of the scientific community this framework has achieved the status of a paradigm. Critical voices have emphasised important limits in the meaningfulness and the explanatory capacity of this framework, and advocate to move on. Others encourage overcoming the caveats identified, but, fundamentally, do not question the framework’s validity. This illustrates well how scientific debates evolve and create space for yet new questions and paradigms.

The central question of modelling exercises based on the land sparing and land sharing framework is: How should land use be spatially organised to reconcile food production with biodiversity conversation? An explicit goal of these studies is to inform policy and management. This approach may be appropriate to evaluate the respective advantages and disadvantages of Land Sparing vs Land Sharing with regards to agricultural productivity or ecological richness, but it is ill-suited for assessing the social, political and cultural consequences of implementing one or the other of these land use concepts. Indeed, the spatial distribution of current land use and “natural” areas is related to a complex history of socio-ecological processes of occupation of space, and conflict of access to land and natural resources. Formulating land use / conservation recommendations, which do not take into account this big picture, are bound to fail or reproduce patterns of exclusion and injustice.

We need to ask ourselves: can modelling exercises, which may be perfectly adequate to improve land and biodiversity management at farm level (where the social complexity may be reduced to one owner / land user) be legitimately used as the basis of land use / conservation policy at landscape, regional or national levels (where the social context is much more complex)? This question, though central, is rarely addressed in the debate, and issues of rights, access to land and political autonomy are thereby simply bypassed. Nevertheless, it is critical to consider these issues, especially if modelling results are used to formulate policy recommendations on:

- areas that should be ear-marked for exclusive conservation (which may result in the displacement of local populations),

- efforts to encourage extensification or, on the contrary, intensification (implying, next to ecological changes, transformations in productive systems, income basis and local economies)

- strategies to encourage (export) market integration (which may significantly affect local food producing capacities and community cultures)

- the allocation of public subsidies (and thus what may be subsidised, who may receive them and who may be excluded).

If we truly want to seek ways to adequately feed the world without further putting biodiversity at risk, we cannot avoid addressing the issue of who has / should have access to which land and natural resources, for what purposes and on which terms. This means that we need to move beyond the disciplinary realms of agricultural, ecological, and land use sciences to explicitly address local demands for access to productive resources, distributive justice and transformation in governance regimes.

A. Cristina de la Vega-Leinert (Geography and Geology Institute, University Greifswald, Germany) & Peter Clausing (México vía Berlin, Germany)

See also our paper: Anne Cristina de la Vega-Leinert and Peter Clausing (2016) Extractive Conservation: Peasant Agroecological Systems as New Frontiers of Exploitation? Environment & Society, vol. 7: 50–70. DOI:



Dr. A. Cristina de la Vega-Leinert

Geography and Geology Institute, University of Greifswald, Germany