The land sharing vs. land sparing debate: Options to ensure food security while preserving biodiversity

18 December 2017
Raimon Ripoll Bosch, Akke Kok and Evelien de Olde

Global agricultural production is increasing to meet our food needs as the world's population grows - but how can this expansion be reconciled with environmental concerns such as biodiversity loss and cultural practices?

The human population is expected to increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050. The increase in the number of people, combined with their increased wealth, is expected to increase the overall demand for food, and especially for animal feed (Godfray et al., 2010).

To meet the increasing demand for food, agricultural land has been expanded (at the expense of other land uses, such as grasslands and forests) and/or intensified (to increase the productivity of crops and livestock per unit of land). It is expected that the trends of expansion and intensification of agricultural land will continue. Agricultural expansion and intensification, however, create controversy and raise concerns about the impact on the environment, biodiversity and ecosystem services other than food supply (such as pollination, carbon sequestration or maintenance of cultural landscapes, among others).

In recent years, there has been an increasing debate about how to ensure food supply while reducing the impact of agricultural production on biodiversity. Agricultural land already occupies nearly 40% of earth’s terrestrial surface. Further expansion of the agricultural land seems undesired, as it increases environmental impacts and conflicts with nature preservation. Increasing land use efficiency by means of intensification has boosted agricultural production, but has also been associated with detrimental effects to the environment and biodiversity decline.

The concepts of land sharing or land sparing have been posed as solutions to increase food production and maintain biodiversity. Land sharing means that food production (usually at lower intensity and yields) is combined with biodiversity conservation on the same land. An example of land sharing strategy are the European Union’s agri-environmental schemes, meant to compensate potential loss of income by farmers that mitigate detrimental effects of intensification on biodiversity (Michael et al., 2016). Land sparing implies a segregation of agricultural land (usually at high intensity production, with high yielding varieties) and protected areas for biodiversity or nature conservation. An example of land sparing strategy are protected areas, which are geographically delimitated and legally protected, to preserve biodiversity and nature, and the associated ecosystem services (Michael et al., 2016).

A key question remains whether land sharing, or land sparing can host higher biodiversity while ensuring food supply. Some studies argue that increasing productivity of both crops and animals would reduce the total land needed for agriculture and spare land for nature conservation purposes (Phalan et al., 2016). In contrast, other studies claim that nature inclusive agriculture can satisfy the increased demand for food while promoting biodiversity. For instance, traditional farming practices in Europe (currently declining) are inherently linked to provision of many public goods and conservation of biodiversity (Tscharntke et al., 2012).

The interdependence of agriculture and biodiversity is complex and not always well understood (Tscharntke et al., 2012). There may not be a simple answer in the dichotomy land sharing vs. land sparing. Indeed, agriculture can be a driver for biodiversity decline through pollution or habitat destruction, but can also contribute to biodiversity enhancement through creation or preservation of habitats, and through the maintenance of local breeds and varieties. Ultimately, agricultural production depends on biodiversity and the continued provision of ecosystems services. Biodiversity, moreover, can enhance the resilience of systems, including agricultural systems. The loss of biodiversity, therefore, has far reaching effects, as can influence the supply of ecosystem services and ultimately affect human well-being. The way forward may be to understand where and when land sharing or land sparing is the better alternative to ensure food security while preserving biodiversity.


Godfray, H.C.J., J.R. Beddington, I.R. Crute, L. Haddad, D. Lawrence, J.F. Muir, J. Pretty, S. Robinson, S.M. Thomas, and C. Toulmin. 2010. The Challenge of Food Security. Science 327, 812-818. doi:10.4337/9780857939388.

Michael, D.R., Wood, J.T., O’Loughlin, T., Lindenmayer, D.B. 2016. Influence of land sharing and land sparing strategies on patterns of vegetation and terrestrial vertebrate richness and occurrence in Australian endangered eucalypt woodlands. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 227 (2016) 24–32.

Phalan, B., Green, R.E., Dicks, L.V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., Strassburg, B.B.N., Williams, B.R., zu Ermgassen E.K.H.J., Balmford, A. 2016. How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science 351 (6272), 450-451. DOI: 10.1126/science.aad0055

Tscharntke, T., Y. Clough, T.C. Wanger, L. Jackson, I. Motzke, I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, and A. Whitbread. 2012. Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification. Biological Conservation 151, 53–59. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.01.068.