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.