New POSTnote encapsulates land sharing vs land sparing debate

A POSTnote from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology ‘Balancing Nature and Agriculture’ published online this week outlines the ongoing debate over land sparing versus land sharing in sustainable management of agricultural land for biodiversity conservation.

Much biodiversity is dependent on appropriate agricultural management and in turn, agricultural production depends on ecosystem services including pollination, pest-control and nutrient cycling. However, current intensive agricultural management are causing widespread destruction of habitat and a significant decline in biodiversity undermining these important processes.

Appropriate management of agricultural land is essential, but there is much debate over how best to do this.
The POSTnote outlines current thinking on both sides of what has become known as the land sharing versus land sparing debate and some of the more nuanced details of the ongoing argument.

Land sharing is management which attempts to meet both agricultural and conservation needs within the same area, aiming to make existing farmland as hospitable as possible for wildlife. This includes reducing pesticide and fertiliser use and retaining habitat features such as trees, hedges and ponds. Current agri-environment schemes under the EU Common Agricultural Policy are an example of land sharing – farmers adopt subsidised management options within their farmland, incorporating planted field margins and sympathetically managed hedgerows into the landscape.

Land sparing, on the other hand, involves measures to sustainably increase yields on some areas of agricultural land – ‘sustainable intensification’ – allowing other, potentially large and continuous, areas of land to be put aside and protected for nature conservation. The network of designated areas protected under current legislation – including Natura 2000 sites and SSSIs – are a manifestation of the land sparing approach, creating areas in which agricultural production is restricted in order to maintain natural habitats.
However, as the POSTnote recognises, there is some debate over what management constitutes land sharing and what constitutes land-sparing, and related to this, the scales at which this should be measured and implemented.

Available research paints a complex picture about whether land sparing or land sharing may be the optimum approach. It is suggested that whilst land sharing will benefit widespread generalist species and those adapted to semi-natural agricultural habitats, land sparing is more likely to benefit habitat specialists and may better provision ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water regulation.

The POSTnote considers the debate in are European and UK context and identifies some potential policy tools which may lend themselves to delivering the two approaches.

The publication is available to download from the UK Parliament Publications page.