Knowledge for better food systems


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Adrian Muller's picture
Submitted by Adrian Muller (not verified) on

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

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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.  

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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
Submitted by hahgreenfield (not verified) on

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 (not verified) 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
Submitted by joernfischer (not verified) on

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.

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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.

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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
Submitted by Clive Mitchell (not verified) on


Not sure how much help this will be, but below are the top 20 dairy and meat companies based on retail sales globally, 2015. This is looking at end products purchased by the consumer, i.e. cheese and chicken nuggets, rather than livestock, but hope it's of some interest. The data is from private research firm Euromonitor, which I have access to for my PhD research.

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Top 20 Dairy Companies (2015)
Danone, Groupe
Lactalis, Groupe
Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group Co Ltd
Nestlé SA
China Mengniu Dairy Co Ltd
Kraft Heinz Co
Arla Foods Amba
Royal FrieslandCampina NV
Unilever Group
Yakult Honsha Co Ltd
General Mills Inc
Savencia Fromage & Dairy
Bel, Groupe
Meiji Holdings Co Ltd
Fonterra Co-operative Group Ltd
Bright Food (Group) Co Ltd
Grupo Lala SAB de CV
WhiteWave Foods Co
Saputo Inc
Dean Foods Co

Top 20 Processed Meat Companies (2015)
WH Group
Tyson Foods Inc
Kraft Heinz Co
Hormel Foods Corp
Nomad Foods Ltd
Nestlé SA
Sigma Alimentos SA de CV
Bolton Group, The
Maple Leaf Foods Inc
Fleury Michon, Groupe
Brf Brasil Foods SA
Thai Union Frozen Products PCL
People's Food Holdings Ltd
Itoham Yonekyu Holdings Inc
ConAgra Foods Inc
Johnsonville Sausage LLC
Danish Crown Amba
NH Foods Ltd
Bigard SA, Groupe
Nortura SA

Source/reference: Euromonitor International (2016)
Notes: Company ranking based on global retail value sales for 2015
Dairy includes milk, yoghurt and cheese, but not products that are sold unprocessed (e.g. raw milk)
Processed meat excludes fresh whole meat and only includes processed products (e.g. chicken nuggets, sausages and ham)

David Williams's picture
Submitted by David Williams (not verified) on

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!

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vega's picture
Submitted by vega (not verified) 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: