Sharing or sparing?

A couple of my mates, and a couple of people I don’t know, have recently produced a paper in Science – the US-based not-quite-so-good version of Nature.

They look at two versions of land-use and ask which is best as in the title of this blog.  Starting from the point that we may soon have 9 billion people to feed, and we’ll need quite a lot of food to do that, if we care about biodiversity (and we do! and so do the authors of this paper) then is nature best conserved by high production on some land to spare high nature-value land or should we try to get nature and biodiversity to co-exist through sharing the same bits of land?

The paper comes down in favour of sparing based on an interesting analysis of nature in two areas – Ghana and India.  Their data show that sparing works better.

But when asked a question I often reach back to that font of considerable wisdom – The West Wing.  In that ‘awesome’ series a character was once advised, when dealing with the media, ‘don’t accept the premise of the question‘ and that is often very good advice whether the difficult question is from the media or not.  A good example would be ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ to which either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is wrong unless, perhaps, you have, or haven’t; stopped, I mean.

But let’s not accept the premise of the question.  There may not be 9 billion people on the planet if we plan ahead cleverly enough and support better eduction and living standards for women, and there may well be enough food on the planet if only we didn’t waste it in so many ways.  Providing better refrigeration in Africa has always seemed a part of international aid that would benefit from more support and Practical Action’s work with zeer pots seems like a, well, very practical action to me.

I got the impression that the RSPB wasn’t quite sure how to react to this study, part co-authored by one of their own staff, as the press release about it was a bit luke-warm along the ‘very interesting we’ll have to think about this’ line.  And I know why they may be uncomfortable, I’ve been there myself, it’s because the RSPB has backed agri-environment schemes to the hilt in the past and they are, by definition, a form of land sharing.

We know that agri-environment measures have worked in the UK – not as well as they would have done if conservationists had been given more say in how they were designed, but they have had their successes nonetheless.  And the successes of agri-environment schemes have been with those species that are farmland species these days (I don’t quite know what they were before farming but that is a different question).  The nature of farmland is important for farmland species – pretty much stands to reason doesn’t it?  Land sharing works, at least a bit, for those species which have survived to share the land we have now.  And we would be a bit mad not to try to make it work even better.

But you could look at it differently and say that agri-environment schemes, if they were compulsory, would be a form of land sparing – you can produce as much wheat as you like in that part of the field if you spare a bit of production and a bit of nature in this bit of the field.

Maybe the sharing/sparing dichotomy doesn’t really work in our countryside – or maybe it does but it’s difficult to know what to call sparing and what to call sharing.

But wait! Let’s look at it another way.  In the UK we have some of the most intensive farming in the world and we have practically no land at all that isn’t farmed, forested, built upon or somehow exploited by us.  Hardly anywhere, except perhaps at the top of some very high mountain and in a rather small proportion of nature reserves, do we have land that has been spared.  Where is our spared land in the UK?

Let’s say that sparing is the way forward and nature needs its share again.  Give nature back its share!  Re-create much more of the lost habitats that were not spared in the past.  Let’s see some more wetlands and heaths and saltmarsh and woods.  Yes, that’s right, a bit like the Lawton report said was needed and government has agreed.

So, the RSPB press release was right all along – this paper is worth thinking about to see what it means.  We haven’t been very sharing or sparing with nature for a long time.  It’s time to be a bit more generous.

For another, quirky take on this paper, come back on Wednesday – tomorrow I am going to take the mickey out of Americans.

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7 Replies to “Sharing or sparing?”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your reflections on this as always. I wanted to read the paper myself, and intend to once I kick the ever unreliable Reading university online access back into shape! "Don't accept the premise of the question" - thank you for raising this! Whenever the billion people point is raised, I also feel like saying 'Why should we just accept 9 billion'? and point out how badly distributed the food we have is. In fact, one of the lecturers on the Conservation MSc I just finished suggested that if we really wanted to save global biodiversity we should go out and solve global poverty first. In that respect it is heartening that the RSPB has been behind initiatives such as Fair Trade in the past.

    Somebody must be hiding behind the 9 billion figure and using it to offer a false choice between feeding the hungry and wildlife, but I wouldn't like to speculate who.

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  2. What's missing in all this is that there is more to life than just food. At a practical level, and relevant to us in the UK, are issues like water resources. We've all been brought up in a era dominated by post WW2 thinking - when food was the single big issue. Noone in 1947 could have concieved of our economy today - or that water shortage, for example, might be a key issue. So we've drained the land to run water off as fast as possible and pushed out into the sea to grab all the land we can. We now face predicted costs of £40 billion/pa for flood defence. Mightn't it make sense to back off a little ? And in the process give a bit more space to nature (a lot more compared to our miniscule nature reserves). Just how much high carbon concrete and water processing (before we drink it, to remove the agricultural nutrients we've put into it as well as cleaning waste after use) could we save by using a bit more space ? and as the climate gets dryer could big wetlands provide an essential to our agriculture - water ?

    But for the UK at least there are a couple of key considerations - we aren't actually a subsistence economy any more - whether we eat or not depends on our ability to pay for food, not just to grow it (and that isn't necessarily exporting our problems too far away as France is massively more than self sufficient in food). And in any case - we probably are already self sufficient at the survival level the farmers are no doubt talking about (!) - if we cut out most of our 30% waste & ate a 'wartime diet' that didn't convert most our grain into meat our 70% self sufficiency would easily top 100% - the only missing link being the spectacular amounts of fossil fuels it takes to produce our food at present.

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  3. Mark
    When you stated "Let’s say that sparing is the way forward and nature needs its share again. Give nature back its share!" , are you stating a hypothetical case or is this and the rest of this paragraph what you actually believe?.
    Myself I strongly believe that nature should get back it's share through habitat recreation or whatever, but first priority should be to preserve what few pieces of semi natural wildlife habitat remain.
    There seems an awful lot of good points in the Lawton report and good government responses, but how much good government action?
    Recommendation 21 suggests that linear features in the environment such as roads, railways, cycle tracks etc should be developed so they may achieve their potential as wildlife corridors. The government response states that natural areas along road and railways amount to 60,000 hectares which could be enhanced further by various means to increase wildlife potential.
    Our local railway line used to be a great place for birds and other wildlife with much scrubby growth including haws and crab apples for winter wildlife food and then along came a new herbicide which targets woody shrubs and trees and can be sprayed from a moving train with the result that this lovely habitat has been destroyed.
    A local farmer has recently "improved" a steep side of the river valley which must be around a 45 degree slope and was a wildlife rich meadow. Now cereal crops are grown here and how they manage to harvest this crop on such a dangerous slope without being prosecuted by health and safety I do not know.
    Anyway what I am trying to say is that these good wildlife areas should have been the spare land still utilised by our native species and there is no good reason for destruction of these habitats.
    Big problem with any conservation improvement plans is that there is no cash available now and probably less so in the future. Locally we have one over worked council employee who amongst other things is monitoring assessing and producing management plans for many hundreds of miles of wildflower rich roadside verges and even those that are classed as SSSIs are not being managed correctly.

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  4. Interesting concept and I can how that argument might pan out in America with such a large land mass. If we want landscape scale conservation (and we do dont we?) then sparing that land might be a good idea and presumably the money for it would come from not having to pay farmers agri-environment money. I do want landscape conservation but I also want to walk anywhere to see my wildlife (that might be selfish) but that means sharing and for that I would expect to pay the farmer. I think it is a case of you decide and I will go along with it.

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