Food vs. fauna: can we have our biodiversity and eat, too?

In India, species decline when they have to share land with agriculture. flickrPrince

So, we have to feed an extra 2.5 billion people by 2050. For those of us interested in the future of biodiversity on this planet, this poses an uncomfortable challenge. It is also the topic of a recent paper in Science by Ben Phalan and colleagues at Cambridge University.

Clearly, we need to ramp up food production considerably but how will we do this?

Simply put, there are two options:

1) convert more land for agriculture;
2) increase yields from existing agricultural land.

Of course we will end up doing a bit of both (it will be interesting to see whether we can actually reach our food production target either way – but that is another story).

But is one or the other approach better from the perspective of biodiversity conservation?

Should we be encouraging intensification of agriculture, to get the most out of every farmed hectare, and spare as much “natural” habitat as possible (known as “land sparing”)?

Or should we be encouraging “land sharing”: using “wildlife-friendly” farming, despite such methods generally producing smaller yields? (Of course, smaller yields mean more land conversion is needed to produce the same amount of food.)

Forests (dark) and farms (light) in Ghana. Ben Phelan