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This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

27 June 2019

This thing called Land Use: Reflecting on a life in land use research

Keith Matthews

The sign on the open plan door that I walk through on my way to my office says Land Use.  It has said Land Use since 1992 when I moved into our new building, opened to house the then five-year-old Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.  The sign has never changed, despite reorganisations, rebranding, reviews and mergers.  While there are no longer thematic departmental structures in the now James Hutton Institute, the sign still defines in two words an idea that profoundly shapes the professional and personal lives of a significant majority of the people who pass the sign each day.  It represents a community of practice with deep roots, but one which is, perhaps only now 27 year later, able to fully articulate the ambitions of the people who put the sign on the door.

To elaborate a little what this thing called land use research is I searched my book shelves for a vaguely remembered report I had been passed by a senior colleague from the Land Use Division on his retirement.  It has sat there largely undisturbed, surviving decluttering, as a piece of institutional history.  The report is a Review of Land Use Research in the UK (Birnie et al., 1995) and the contents are a fascinating time capsule which highlight what the original vision for land use research was and which allows readers today to reflect on how far their own state-of-the-art has advanced and how many of the problems faced in 1994 are still ahead of us now.

  • There is an increasing need to develop more coordinated research programmes in the future focused on major issues like sustainability. The wider rural socio-economy is generally a poorly researched topic …
  • The vision of agriculture as “the backbone of the rural economy “ is still prevalent […] this Review suggests that the rural economy a much more complex policy objective than is, for example, the wellbeing of agriculture.It raises issues […]that have seldom been considered together before.
  • Few scientific groups […] are capable of delivering across the range of disciplines involved. […] need to find ways of creating and nurturing such interdisciplinary groups if a coherent body of relevant knowledge, theory and expertise is to be developed.
  • […] for research to be classified as “land use science” […] it must seek explanation through an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach and preferably be focused on whole land systems[…] above the individual […] above the field”.
  • Little evidence of underpinning theoretical or methodological research that seeks either to develop a framework for integrated research of this type or develop a fundamental understanding of process.
  • There is the need to involve the user community in the research process where the output is specifically designed to support the policy process. […] little evidence of this […] little understanding of how this might be done […] far from clear how research findings are communicated […] to what extent research actually informs policy.

For the Hutton researchers in the MAGIC team our view would be that all the challenges identified above remain “live” issues but that projects like MAGIC are demonstrating progress and signposting ways forward.  The societal metabolism analyses pioneered by Mario Giampietro and others at UAB bring a theoretical coherence and analytical precision to the analysis of land use and provide a tractable way to make sense to the potentially overwhelming complexity.  Land Use research brings to societal metabolism analysis the insights of spatial analysis.  Yet even their combined scientific rigour still needs to be translated into outcomes and impacts.  Here the deliberative inclusive processes, crossing the science-policy interface using Quantitative Story Telling (QST) are key.  QST recognises that transdisciplinary research should strive to shape policy (colloquially speaking truth to power) but also that is must engage with and be shaped by stakeholders (post normal science).

The study of land use has never been more relevant with the recognition that the challenges faced by humanity are increasingly clearly not just socio-economic but also biophysical.  How populations cope with resource limits are old challenges, thought to have been consigned long ago to the text books of economic and social history (my first undergraduate lecture in 1985).  Yet whether Malthus proves to be wrong or not, may just depend on the temporal scale over which one considers the topic of land use.


Birnie, R.V., Morgan, R.J., Bateman, D., Potter, C., Shucksmith, M., Thompson, T.R.E., Webster, J.P.G., 1995. Review of land use research in the UK.  Part A: Executive Report. Report prepared on behalf of SOAFD under contract MLU/408/94., p. 26.

What are the tradeoffs in agriculture?

18 December 2017

What are the tradeoffs in agriculture?

The Magic Nexus team

Why is the MAGIC project specialized on the water-energy-food nexus? Because the nexus matters crucially for many EU policies! In this issue, we discuss some of the nexus issues that concern agriculture and the challenge of feeding an increasing population.

The nexus between agriculture and biodiversity is explored by zooming into the ‘land sharing vs land sparing’ debate. On the one hand, agriculture depends on biodiversity, for services such as pollination, soil generation, etc. On the other hand, agricultural expansion competes with biodiversity and land set aside for conservation.

The challenge of agricultural expansion matters not only for biodiversity, but also raises the question of internal boundaries: are there enough farmers to feed an increasing population? There is a link between the small amount of labour Europeans put into agriculture, and the consequences it has on the use of machines, fossil fuels, as well as imports. The EU imports almost four times as much food as China does, even though it has double the amount of arable land per capita. Diets, living standards, and people’s preferences are part of these internal boundaries.

The explicit inclusion of the nexus within policy-making allows for a better-informed analysis of progress towards EU sustainability goals. It does not mean, however, that the achievement of these goals becomes easier! In our last article, we take you through the first results of MAGIC’s analysis of policy narratives. The Common Agricultural Policy has the potential to be a force for change in strategies on water, biodiversity, climate change and wider rural economic development – but it is also dominated by big agro-businesses.

These articles are aimed at initiating a discussion on the importance of the nexus for agricultural policy-making. We welcome any comment and contribution to the discussion. You can either use our discussion forum (check out our post on CAP narratives!) or write to us.

» Read "The Nexus Times" Issue III - AGRICULTURE (December 2017)

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

The climate change policy challenge: Balancing the multiple roles of land use

Mike Rivington

Responding appropriately to climate change presents many complex challenges for policy makers and other stakeholders, especially when considering the use of land for mitigation and adaptation purposes. This because they represent additional burdens imposed on the biosphere on top of all the others. The capability and capacity of land to provide goods and services will also be affected by climate change impacts (e.g. changes in rainfall amounts and extremes (IPCC 2018a). These impacts will coincide with population growth and increasing demand for resources per capita. Further, the quality of available land has been and continues to be degraded. The recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment Report painted a stark picture of degradation of the worlds ecosystems and loss of biodiversity (IPBES 2019).

For climate change mitigation, afforestation and bio-energy crops are argued as having the potential to capture carbon and reduce the use of fossil fuels. This makes them an essential component of policies to achieve net zero emissions as they can offset emissions from sectors where it will be neither technically feasible nor economically viable to eliminate GHG emissions (van Vuuren et al 2011). Yet any plantation woodland expansion within the EU would need to be set against the substantial losses of old growth forests in the tropics. This creates an additional demand on land, adding to the developing conflicting requirements made on it at a time of the need for increasing food security.

Cutting through this complexity is the need for policy makers to understand “what are the required changes in balance between land uses needed in order to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C?”. This question has been explored in the Shared Socio-economic Pathways (SSPs) (Raihi et al 2017), and subsequent analysis of mitigation pathways (IPCC 2018b) to inform policy makers on opportunities for carbon dioxide removal. Figure 1 illustrates four alternative scenarios for the global land requirements for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation and the consequent reduction in the area of other land uses.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Land use changes (M ha) in 2050 and 2100 (in relation to 2010) in four socio-economic pathways (S1, S2, S5 and a Low Energy Demand LED) that are consistent in potentially limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C (IPCC 2018b).

All these 1.5°C scenarios have a reduction in area for food production, most noticeably in pasture, though much less so for the Low Energy Demand scenario (LED) (Grubler et al 2018). The reduction in crop and pasture areas are to enable increases in energy crops and forests. Such substantial changes in land use have very large consequences on existing land-based economies (e.g. the livestock industry) and societies and thus present complex trade-off issues. Add to this that there are difficulties of carbon accounting for such land used (e.g. see Nexus Times “Why it is so difficult to measure biofuel emissions”) and for competing land uses means the need to adequately frame and conduct analysis in a way that does not seek to “simplify out” or ignore the complexity.

To identify potential solutions to this complex set of problems (development pathways that lead to sustainability) within a Social Metabolism Analytical framework, it is helpful to use three key benchmarks:

  • Is the solution Feasible? Can the development pathway be achieved within the limits of available resources? Does it respect ecological limitations such as water availability restrictions and the need to maintain soil health? Therefore, is it physically feasible? 
  • Is the solution Viable? We in the EU currently solve feasibility problems by externalising them, e.g. by using imports, but what are the consequences of this? Will externalisation remain feasible during the period of transition to a new and sustainable state?
  • Is it Desirable? Does the pathway resolve some issues but not others, or compound other problems and therefore risk not achieving sustainability? What does it do for aims such as the Sustainable Development Goals?

These questions identify dependencies (e.g. risk of externalisation) that whilst trying to resolve one problem cause another. For example, in 2009 the EU set targets in the transport sector for renewables and the de-carbonization of fuels that lead to substantial investment in biofuels (Valin et al. 2015), the production of which were outside of the EU. Hence the development of the biofuels industry has driven the expansion of cultivated land (e.g. causing deforestation). This has posed substantial issues in carbon and environmental impact accounting (see Nexus Times “Meeting EU biofuel targets: the devil is in the detail”).

The details above have created a picture of a land use and climate change complex ‘wicked’ problem. It is yet unclear what a feasible, viable and desirable pathway solution looks like. What is clear, though, is that conventional economics-based approaches to cost benefit analysis, with limited risk assessment, single scale accounting and trade-off analysis whilst considering ecological and entropy limits, are inadequate to deal with such complex problems. Within the context of a deteriorating environmental state, growing resource demand and climate change pressures, land is a key medium through which to consider the food-energy-water nexus using a MAGIC Social Metabolism Analysis approach.


Grubler, A. et al., 2018: A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5°C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy, 3(6), 515–527, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-018-0172-6

Harrison P. A., Hauck J., Austrheim G., Brotons L., Cantele M., Claudet J., Fürst C., Guisan A., Harmáčková Z.V., Lavorel S. et al. dans Rounsevell M., Fischer M., Torre-Marin Rando A., Mader A. (eds.) IPBES (2018): The IPBES regional assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Europe and Central Asia, Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services.

IPCC (20118a) Special report: Global Warming of 1.5°C. Summary for Policymakers.

IPBES (2018b) Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fifita, P. Forster, V. Ginzburg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, E. Kriegler, L. Mundaca, R. Séférian, and M.V. Vilariño, 2018: Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)].

IPBES (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES Secretariat, Bonn, Germany.

Riahi K., D.P. vanVuuren, E. Kriegler, J. Edmonds, B.C. O’Neill, S. Fujimori, N. Bauer, K. Calvin, R. Dellink, O. Fricko, W. Lutz, A. Popp, J.C. Cuaresma, Samir KC, M. Leimbach, L. Jiang, T. Kram, S. Rao, M. Tavoni (2017) The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways and their energy, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions implications: An overview. Global Environmental Change 42, 153-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.05.009 

Valin, H., Peters, D., van den Berg, M., Frank, S., Havlik, P.,Forsell, N. and Hamelinck, C. (2015) The land use change impact of biofuels consumed in the EU. Quantification of area and greenhouse gas impacts. https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/Final%20Report_GLOBIOM_publication.pdf

van Vuuren, D. P., Edmonds, J., Kainuma, M., Riahi, K., Thomson, A., Hibbard, K., Hurtt, G. C., Kram, T., Krey, V., Lamarque, J. F., Masui, T., Meinshausen, M., Nakicenovic, N., Smith, S. J., & Rose, S. K. (2011). The representative concentration pathways: An overview. Climatic Change. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-011-0148-z



Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Balancing food production and biodiversity conservation

Akke Kok and Abigail Muscat

Agriculture causes some of the largest impacts of land use and is a key influence on biodiversity conservation. Agriculture has both negative and positive impacts on biodiversity. The conversion of natural land and changes in agricultural land use directly result in habitat loss and fragmentation. Also, agriculture contributes to environmental impacts such as climate change, that indirectly cause biodiversity decline. In contrast, agriculture is a major contributor to Europe’s biodiversity, through diverse farming traditions that have resulted in a wide range of agricultural landscapes. In aggregate, however, farmland biodiversity shows a rapid decline, due to changes in management such as intensification and industrialisation of agriculture. For example, populations of farmland birds have more than halved in the last three decades.

To effectively conserve biodiversity, we need to define what is biodiversity, and what targets to set. This is not a straightforward task. Defining biodiversity and setting targets relies, to a large extent, on stakeholder input and societal values. One stakeholder may wish to conserve a specific group of vulnerable or iconic species – such as meadow birds, whereas another focuses on generic conservation measures to reduce extinction risk across species within agriculture. Others may argue that it is better to produce food as intensively  as possible in a limited area, so as to spare other land from agriculture to conserve natural habitats, such as forest. Either way, creating or maintaining a suitable landscape for some species will potentially be less suitable for other species. Because it is not possible to boost all species everywhere while still delivering the provisioning services of food, fibre and increasingly energy, then one has to choose which landscapes and inhabiting species to conserve and to what extent.

The EU released the EU Biodiversity Strategy in 2011 to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 (European Commission, 2011). To ensure conservation of biodiversity in agriculture, the target is to maximise areas under agriculture covered by biodiversity related measures under the Common Agricultural Policy. However, biodiversity assessments at EU level have so far shown that biodiversity loss has continued, and that more stringent protection is required to stop biodiversity decline.

To develop more effective  scenarios for biodiversity conservation on agricultural land, we interviewed experts and stakeholders in biodiversity conservation and assessed proposals for conservation in the Netherlands and France. More heterogeneous landscapes and more extensive (i.e. lower intensity) production were key in their priorities to boost biodiversity. Our scenario calculations suggested that measures to conserve a specific species or habitat, could be realized with a limited overall impact on the existing patterns of land use and food production, because measures only applied to a limited share of the land. Going to more extensive practices to mainstream biodiversity conservation throughout agriculture, however, would have a much larger impact on food production, because it would affect all agricultural production. Especially in case of a large reduction in food production, this could result in intensification of production or land use change elsewhere. Alternatively, a reduction in food production could be achieved by less food waste, less over consumption, and dietary changes.

In conclusion, there is an unavoidable trade-off between biodiversity conservation and food production. Therefore, conservation scenarios may have unwanted effects in regions other than the conservation area due to land use change elsewhere. More effective biodiversity conservation will depend on societal values and stakeholder input around land use. Targets are needed, but policy-makers should be aware of the process, values, frames, and narratives behind these targets.

What if healthy diets had a hidden cost?

What if healthy diets had a hidden cost?

Violeta Cabello & Tarik Serrano

Europe consumes around 200 million tonnes of fruits and vegetables (F&V) annually, which is about 12% of the total biomass consumed in our continent. This volume has steadily increased over the last decades, a consumption pattern that is a sign of the healthier and richer dietary habits and lifestyles of Europeans. However, these habits need to be met with increased production, which is not feasible everywhere. Contrary to other crops such as cereals or tubers, most F&V require high irrigation levels and warm weather conditions for growing. This is the reason why most of F&V production in Europe is located in Southern European countries which also tend to have conditions of lower water availability. Therefore, the increase of F&V production is usually associated with impacts in water resources availability and aquatic environments, challenging the water management in these regions.

The fact that northern European F&V consumption is to a large extent sustained by southern countries' production is nothing new. We have recently witnessed the empty sections of vegetables in UK supermarkets due to weather vagaries limiting the supply capacity of Spain. However, how much water are they saving thanks to the externalized production? Let’s look at the two major importers, UK and Germany. Whereas Germany imports only 36% of the F&V it consumes, it saves an amount of water equal to 23% of the total water used for irrigation in agriculture in the country. The UK is even more impressive: 60% of F&V consumed within the country are imported, accounting for 34% of the total water used in agriculture in the country (meaning that 12 times more water is imported virtually than used for F&V production within the country!). If these countries were to produce what they consume, they would have to either significantly increase their water availability, or take it from other uses. Both alternatives have trade-offs.

How does the picture look like in their mirror countries, the net exporters? Well, 36% of F&V production in Italy is exported and in Spain it reaches up to 52%. This trade is translated into 4,125 million cubic meters of water exported virtually from those countries, a share of 14% of the total water used for irrigation. Whereas the share might not look dramatic at the national scale, there is a sharp contrast when looking at regional differences with most production concentrated in water scarce areas. For instance, the arid province of Almeria in Spain exports virtually around 85% of the water it uses, causing a heavy impact on the already strained local aquifers.

The conundrum is that neither Northern countries can produce what they consume because of climatic constraints, nor can Southern countries maintain their production patterns if they want to manage their water resources sustainably. It is not surprising then that European policymakers face a huge challenge in harmonizing water and agricultural policies to solve this nexus problem.


Planetary boundaries and the global food system: what about the farmers?

Planetary boundaries and the global food system: what about the farmers?

Louisa Jane Di Felice, Mario Giampietro, Tarik Serrano-Tovar

Planetary boundaries are usually framed in terms of natural constraints on the ecosystem, but constraints linked to society’s organization, especially our workforce, shouldn’t be ignored.

Planetary boundaries have become a popular concept in sustainability, as a way to show the amount of stress that human activities and lifestyles are putting on the earth’s ecosystem. In 2009, a study conducted by a team of researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Center identified nine planetary boundaries of the earth system, ranging from ocean acidification and climate change to fresh-water use and land system change. The goal of the study was to define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Scientists worldwide agree that the EU’s current way of living does not fall within such a “safe operating space”: recently, over 15,000 researchers signed an article warning humanity against “the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs from burning fossil fuels, and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption”.

Agriculture, as a big emitter of greenhouse gases and user of land, is central to boundary debates. It is also a complex topic for researchers and policymakers alike: looking at food systems from different perspectives shows how their complexity cannot be easily modelled or reduced to a single indicator of sustainability. Food systems are shaped both by production and consumption patterns, and these are in turn shaped by a variety of factors, which are constantly co-evolving, therefore making their evolution incredibly hard to predict. For example, food requirements are determined, among other drivers, by population structure and size, dietary preferences and culture. Untangling the mess of possible relations determining how the EU produces and consumes food is almost impossible, but in terms of sustainability some sort of simplification is needed in order to determine what possible boundaries will affect future food systems.

These simplifications, leading to assessments revolving around natural and ecosystem boundaries linked to agriculture, are valuable and necessary. This holds true not only from an academic perspective: the simplification of ecosystem constraints to planetary boundaries is also very powerful for communication purposes. However, while they might not convey strong images of glaciers melting and species going extinct, it is also important to consider the boundaries that arise when analyzing how society is structured, and how this structure shapes the way food is produced. In this sense, boundaries can be viewed not only as external to societies, depending on environmental constraints, but also as internal to the way we live, particularly in relation to how people use their time. In the EU, for example, if one looks at the total amount of hours available to the population, labour statistics show that 70% of working hours are used in the service sector. A very small percentage is allocated to food production, meaning that productivity must remain high. The internal societal and external environmental boundaries are, of course, related: there is a link between the small amount of work Europeans put into agriculture, and the consequences it has on the environment. Running an agricultural system with very few farmers means that manual labour is substituted with machines running on fossil fuels, and that most food is imported. The EU, in fact, imports almost four times the amount of food as China does, even though it has double the amount of arable land per capita. So the issue isn't that the EU doesn't have enough land to produce its own food, but that it doesn't have enough people willing to do it. 

The situation worsens when considering future trends: the EU has an aging population structure, which will lead to a reduced labour force and more people to be supported in the coming years. The diet is also changing towards a higher consumption of meat products. And yet, most people work in services. This is the famous service economy, but looking at the other side of the coin, by also considering imports, quickly shows how the service economy is little more than an import economy – the EU does not run our society on services, but it outsources its basic food and energy requirements to other countries.  So not only is the EU importing food, but it is importing food based on cheap and time intensive labour. This means that if the whole world were to produce and consume food the way the EU does, not only would it require more land, water and energy, but also (and crucially) more people willing to work as farmers. This was the norm in the past, but new norms are quick to re-emerge, and the notion of farming is so distant from the majority of the EU population that it has become imbued with an old-timey nostalgia - one that has little grounding in the reality of the business. From labour statistics, the amount of hours of agricultural work embodied in the food imported by EU is of around 80 hours per capita per year.  This quantity doubles the hours of agricultural work used in domestic production within the EU, of around 40 hours per capita per year. In simple terms, this means that the food imported by the EU needs a lot more work than what Europeans put into their own agricultural sector.

Discussions of the classic planetary boundaries of land use, water use, and other ecosystem constraints related to agriculture should run alongisde conversations about the way society is organized and functions. If not, by viewing agriculture only from an environmental perspective, one runs the risk of forgetting about who is producing the food. In fact, farmers are often left out of the equation when it comes conversations about sustainability and agriculture -  policymakers and  academics talk about climate smart agriculture, sustainable food systems, green farming and so on, but little mention is given to how these innovative systems will affect the labour fource, specifically farmers and rural communities. This is a big issue for Europe: a recent report by the EU showed how less than 6% of farmers are below the age of 35, and a worryingly high 30% are 65 and over. No matter how green, circular or climate-smart agriculture becomes, such advances will be useless if there is no one to take care of the land and little regard for the preservation of rural communities. And moving towards a service economy by outsourcing food production to the rest of the world may work at the EU level, but looking at the problem from a global scale leaves little room for manoeuvre, and reveals societal planetary boundaries that may be just as pressing as the ecosystem ones.

For more on whether adding agricultural land has become a burden on Europe, watch this video taken from the 2017 UAB MOOC on socio-ecological systems held by Mario Giampietro.

Land use change connected with the evolution of farming systems: modernisation in practice

Land use change connected with the evolution of farming systems: modernisation in practice

Richard Aspinall and Michele Staiano

How land use changes through time says a great deal on the story of a country; a review of the path it followed in biophysical and economic terms could significantly help in highlighting the trajectory and capturing the relationships it discloses about the nexus. The recorded history of land use change encapsulates and summarises the ways that policy and institutional changes, including governance, and national and international pressures, play out in practice, rather than in the economic theory that attempts to inform decision-making.

In a recently published study we have explored the sequence of changes in agricultural land use and the dynamics of change in provisioning services from agriculture in Scotland between 1940 and 2016. The goal, to develop understanding of whole-system and landscape-scale approaches to ecosystem services, food production, and land use, calls for including a metabolic analysis alongside an economic reading of the long time series. Specifically, our analysis identifies ways in which funds of capitals and flows of inputs and output ecosystem goods are linked to land management practices and policies at a national scale.

Figure 1 shows for Scotland as a whole, for the periods 1950-4 and 2005-9,the average economic inputs and outputs, the energy inputs, outputs and end-uses of agricultural products, and the land used for agriculture,  The figure thus provides a summary of  the funds of land and the related flows within the agricultural land system.

Figure 1a

figure 1b

Figure 1. Sankey diagrams for financial and energy inputs and outputs through agricultural land in Scotland, 1950-4 and 2005-9.  All financial values are in 2010 prices.

Although Scotland’s has remained a mixed arable-livestock farming system, with livestock the more significant component, these figures highlight large changes within the system. Even though the total area of arable land has remained almost the same throughout the time there have been increases in area for wheat, barley, oilseed, cash crops, fallow, and permanent grass, and declines in area for oats, potatoes, turnips, and rotation grassland (Figure 2).

Comparison of inputs and outputs for finance shows a greater return on investment in 1950-4 compared with 2005-9, total output being more than double the input as opposed to about 1.2 times for 2005-9. Return on direct operating costs, ignoring capital investment in farming, in 2005-9, though, remains at about 1.95 times.  The financial data in Figure 1 also show the increased real terms value of cereals, horticulture, and payments and subsidies in 2005-9 compared with 1950-4.  Similarly, finished and store livestock, and livestock products are relatively of lower value.  Fertilisers and seeds cost less in real terms in 2005-9 than in 1950-4.

Figure 1 also summarises inputs and outputs measured as energy.  Although the total energy inputs in 1950-4 and 2005-9 are similar, the total energy outputs are much higher in 2005-9 than in 1950-4.  There are large increases for wheat and barley, and large relative increases for pork, and poultry between the two periods.  Oats and fodder crops show declines, while grass silage has increased.  Inputs of fertiliser measured in the energy account shows that about three times as much fertiliser is used in 2005-9 compared with 1950-4.

Further, Figure 1 shows the end uses of the outputs from agriculture, measured in energy units.  Although the total energy content of agricultural products used for human food is similar in the two periods, the amount used for making drink, through distilling and malting, has increased by 9 times over the last 50 years. The proportion of cereals used for stockfeed remains at just over 50% of production.

Figure 2

Figure 2.  Change in area of key crop types between 1950-4 and 2005-9 in Scotland

Using an integrated accounting approach for understanding the use of agricultural land to supply provisioning services, and, particularly, examining a long time-series of accounts, enables understanding of land changes and underlying drivers, as well as the contribution of cultural and other aspects of human systems coupled with environment systems. Accounting for ecosystem services using costs as well as benefits, measured by metrics beyond financial benefit, can effectively support debate and evaluation of trade-offs between services, impacts of land management activities, and has direct relevance for decision- and policy-making.

It is not surprising to see that, in general, Scotland’s agriculture has modernised since 1940, and particularly since 1973 when the UK joined the Common Market. Interestingly, it has become more efficient in conversion of resources, with a consequent increase in delivery of provisioning goods and services, albeit with associated increase in pressures on natural capital.


Aspinall, R. J. and Staiano, M. (forthcoming) Ecosystem services as the products of land system dynamics: lessons from a longitudinal study of coupled human-environment systems.  Landscape Ecology

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

18 December 2017

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

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.

The tradeoff between land use and natural capital

27 June 2019

The tradeoff between land use and natural capital

Richard Aspinall and Michele Staiano

Our recently study of land use change in Scotland explored the sequence of changes in agricultural land use and the dynamics of change in provisioning services from agriculture in Scotland between 1940 and 2016. Among the changes associated with modernisation of land use in Scotland, our analysis identified some ways in which funds of capitals and flows of inputs and output ecosystem goods are linked to land management practices and policies.

Our analysis is summarised for each year from 1940 to 2016 in Figure 1, using a series of benchmarks computed from flows and funds.  Figure 1-a records the total financial inputs and outputs and total income from farming (at 2010 prices) and Figure 1-b the total energy inputs and outputs as well as the yearly balance (output-input). Results for inputs and outputs for both finance and energy follow the same general pattern of change over time, although the energy and economic efficiencies, measured as the ratio of outputs to inputs or simply as the excess of outputs over inputs, show two different patterns (Figure 1-a and b). The economic efficiency of Scotland’s farming system, taken as a whole, was greater, in real terms, before 1973, than since.  This period of greater efficiency coincides with the period of deficiency payments from 1947 until 1973, guaranteeing prices.  The energy efficiency, however, shows a different pattern, with increased efficiency following modernisation of agriculture and greater intensification after Britain joined the Common Market.

Figure 1: Our analysis is summarised for each year from 1940 to 2016, using a series of benchmarks computed from flows and funds

Figure 1-c shows two flow-flow ratios: food production efficiency of agriculture, as conversion of finance to energy (GJ energy output/£000 input) and the economic return on resource use by farming (£000 output value/TJ energy input). These two graphs combine the energy and economic output-input ratios, showing the complex change in efficiencies that have occurred between 1940 and 2016.  The graphs emphasise the changes summaries in the Nexus Times article (this issue) ‘Land use change connected with the evolution of farming systems – modernisation in practice’, placing these periods within a sequence of changes that have:

  • increased flows of provisioning goods through increased production,
  • increased the energy and resource use efficiency of farming, and
  • seen a decline in the economic efficiency and value (in real terms) of provisioning goods.

Figure 1-d shows the expenditure on fertiliser and lime inputs to Scotland’s farming from 1950 to 2016, highlighting a decrease in cost over time.  Figure 1-e however, shows the quantity of fertiliser used in Scotland each year, and particularly, the increase in nitrogen fertiliser used, albeit with a tendency to decrease since the early 1990s. 

This history of land use change, shows that although the energy efficiency and flow of goods per unit hectare and per unit labour have increased as farming has modernised, the inputs necessary to maintain those flows of ecosystem goods are also increasing, as their relative economic costs decrease.  Increases in use of fertiliser suggest that the natural capital fund is not being maintained without a large, and increasing, input.  Our analysis of the complexity of the coupled agricultural land system also shows that land management rather than biodiversity is a necessary subject for evaluation of provisioning services from agriculture, and that loss of natural capital under current management practices is unsustainable, given the large inputs of fertilisers that are required annually.


Aspinall, R. J. and Staiano, M. (forthcoming) Ecosystem services as the products of land system dynamics: lessons from a longitudinal study of coupled human-environment systems.  Landscape Ecology

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