To feed the world and protect nature, should we share agricultural land or spare wild habitat?

Cultivating less land more intensively is a better solution for biodiversity than trying to integrate farmland with nature.

That’s the main finding of a recent study that addresses a long-running debate about whether it’s better for biodiversity to share farmland with nature, or rather to farm in a way that saves more wild land from disturbance. As we grapple with the competing forces of food production to feed a growing global population and the need to protect nature and ecosystem services, this issue is becoming increasingly relevant.

The new paper came to its surprising conclusion by reviewing dozens of research papers on the biodiversity impact of different types of land use, which collectively covered more than a decade of research. The studies reviewed looked at more than 2,500 species of plants, insects and birds and covered diverse ecosystems on five continents, in countries ranging from Ghana and Mexico to India and Kazakhstan.

Yet in these hugely varied environments, a clear pattern has emerged over the decade of research: while most studies have found that species inevitably lose out to some degree due to the impacts of our food systems, overall biodiversity is still faring much better in contexts where land is intensively cultivated. in restricted plots, with the aim of keeping more wild land intact.

This contrasts with the alternative, where farmland may incorporate wild features, such as trees or hedgerows, with the aim of boosting biodiversity, but where it nevertheless replaces a greater share of truly wild land, because these mixed-use farmlands take up more space to produce the same amount of food.

The review was replete with examples that repeatedly revealed that preserving land was the best option for biodiversity. For example, data from studies in India and Ghana have shown that the decline of birds, butterflies and trees would be less severe under a land conservation approach than under an agricultural regime where more land was shared. Meanwhile, a series of studies in Colombia of 318 types of birds and 28 species of dung beetles suggested that these species would be more populous if more wild land was left undisturbed, but would decline if agricultural land was left untouched. shared instead of just maintaining wild habitat (unless the shared farmland was right next to intact forest.)

There were also benefits beyond biodiversity. Some of the studies showed that where more wild land was kept intact, more carbon would be stored than in environments where land sharing was the dominant trend – a finding also supported by other research.

The central conclusion of the biodiversity study rests on a critical causal relationship between species and ecosystems. Because species are highly specialized in particular habitats and environmental conditions, in most scenarios even modest disturbances can cause species to decline. This means that biodiversity depends on untouched land to truly thrive. “That’s why so many species are declining even with gentler agriculture,” says study author Andrew Balmford.

So while intensive agriculture has a bad reputation, the best choice for biodiversity might indeed be to increase the amount we produce, only on smaller areas of land, the study suggests.

However, this does not give us a free pass to industrialize agriculture, with all the wanton destruction that entails, warns the author. Realistically, however, can the study’s vision of intensive agriculture on smaller land areas avoid further environmental damage – soil depletion, chemical pollution – that could actually negate some of the conservation benefits? biodiversity?

The study author believes that if we do it the right way, we can farm intensively more sustainably than in the past. Combine new, greener farming methods like integrated pest management and drip irrigation, with a range of new scalable technologies, such as breeding plants with genetic traits that give them higher yields or make them more resilient to climate change, could enable and productive agriculture in the short term. That means more intensive farming needn’t come at a sickening cost to the environment, the study suggests.

But really, the biggest challenge will be to ensure that in the future, new efforts to intensify agriculture are explicitly guided by the priority of protecting wild habitat: it is crucial that the benefits of biodiversity are not forgotten in a desire to simply produce more food and profit. from intensive agriculture.

There are of course still many unknowns, risks and hurdles to overcome in the study’s land-savings approach, all of which need to be further investigated. For now, the research flips a few assumptions and simply suggests that if we want to minimize biodiversity loss, intensive agriculture to spare as much wild habitat as possible might actually be the most powerful starting point.

Balford and. Al. “Focusing or expanding our footprint: how to meet humanity’s needs at the lowest cost to nature.” zoology journal. 2021.

Image: Peakpx

Amalia H. Mercado