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Conservation and food production must work in tandem, new study says

  • Confining conservation efforts to only 30% of Earth’s land may render a fifth of mammals and a third of birds at high risk of extinction, according to a new study.
  • If that 30% were to be strictly protected without accounting for food production activities, it could also result in substantial local or regional food production shortfalls, the researchers said.
  • Instead, they propose an integrated land-use planning strategy where conservation and food production goals are considered in tandem, including through mixed approaches like agroforestry.
  • Such a model would not only generate less food production shortfalls, but also leave just 2.7% of mammal and 1.2% of bird species at risk of extinction.

Confining conservation efforts to only 30% of Earth’s land may render a fifth of mammals and a third of birds at high risk of extinction by 2030, according to a new study. If that 30% were to be strictly conserved without accounting for food production, it could also result in food shortages and insecurity.

Known as “30 by 30,” the target in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework draft released by the United Nations in July calls for policymakers to conserve 30% of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 through “area-based conservation measures” like protected national parks.

While the idea has picked up steam in recent years, excluding food production activities from protected land areas could lead to serious impacts on food availability and local livelihoods, researchers behind the study, published November in One Earth, told Mongabay.

Their research warns against setting hard targets in isolation, and instead proposes a land-use planning strategy where conservation and food production goals are integrated.

Agricultural areas in South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

With the planet’s population growing toward 9.1 billion people in 2050, overall food production needs to increase by 70% in the next few decades, according to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO).

Modeling an extreme version of the 30 by 30 plan, which involves strictly conserving protected land areas while optimizing food production outside, researchers found food production shortfalls, and a fifth of mammals and a third of birds at high risk of extinction by 2030.

“When you lock in 30% for conservation, and you only meet your food targets outside, you’re foregoing the opportunity to achieve conservation objectives in 70% of the planet, and meet food production targets in 30% of the planet,” said Piero Visconti, corresponding author and a researcher at the International Institute of Applied System Analysis in Vienna.

“It’s basically saying, I’m only going to get my protein intake through meat, and my fiber intake from wholemeal bread, as opposed to having a meal that’s got everything in it.”

With the planet’s population growing toward 9.1 billion people in 2050, overall food production needs to increase by 70% in the next few decades. Image by ARG_Flickr on Visualhunt.com.

Instead, the study suggests an integrated land-use planning strategy where conservation and food production goals are considered in tandem. Such a model would not only generate less food production shortfalls, but also leave just 2.7% of mammal and 1.2% of bird species at risk of extinction, it said.

“Under the integrated strategy, the entire planet is available for anything you want to do,” Visconti said. “You just allocate land based on the best decision, where it’s got the highest potential to achieve both targets.”

Currently, some 16% of the world’s lands and inland waters are under formal protection. Under the integrated planning approach, these would remain untouched, while the other 84% would be open to a variety of land uses: intensive farming, strict conservation, and even mixed approaches such as agroforestry or sustainable farming that ensure the land is still partly natural and can harbor existing species.

A worker harvests tea leaves in Yunnan, China, where agroforestry is practised. Image courtesy of Farmerleaf.

“The algorithm identifies land-use decisions to take in order to achieve two targets: to have enough natural habitats for each species for them to be at the lowest extinction risk, and have enough livestock and crop production areas to achieve each region’s specific food production targets,” Visconti said.

Because human civilization cannot be rebuilt from scratch and large swaths of agricultural land already exist, the researchers placed limits on the model so it would not allow for new farmland more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from existing areas.

That would also lessen the socioeconomic cost of shifting agricultural areas, said first author Constance Fastré, a conservation biologist.

The idea, she added, is that some existing farmland could be “restored to a natural state” and new agricultural land developed in adjacent areas. “In Bolivia, for example, you have fields very close to a forest. It would just be better if these fields would be moved further away, because there’s great potential for restoring the forest near the forest. But there is no potential for restoring it further away.

“Shifting things might also be more beneficial because the land further away is more productive,” Fastré said. “But it’s a balance because it impacts people as well. Shifting agricultural land, even if it’s no further than 100 kilometers, is challenging both in a logistical and human way.” An added worry is that such relocation of crop and pastureland might disproportionately affect rural communities in developing countries.

A burnt out forest in the Phnom Tnout Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, in Cambodia. Fires are set by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. Image by Sean Gallagher.

But following a strict 30 by 30 plan offers no good solutions either. Across the world, Indigenous advocates have warned that, implemented poorly, 30 by 30 could result in millions of people being evicted from their ancestral territories, replicating colonial legacies of Indigenous possession.

Part of the problem is the idea that conservation means a hard separation between humans and nature, even if Indigenous people have lived on their lands for thousands of years without damaging the environment.

Based on the researchers’ integrated planning approach, some 60% of Earth would need to be managed for conservation, including restoring 8% to 11% of natural habitats. While it is a significant amount, it doesn’t translate to cutting off communities from their land, the researchers said.

These women, who are part of the Mam Indigenous community, are harvesting pine nuts in a forest in Cajolá, Quetzaltenango, to be sold later at a local market. Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

“It doesn’t mean strict protection and to displace people and human activities. It means to care for 60% of the land in a way that is compatible with other species, like through habitat conservation and restoration, but also certain types of agroforestry or other sustainable farming and forestry practices,” Visconti said.

“If anything, I think the study tells a lot about the importance of land rights-based approaches … and expanding the sort of instruments we have to conserve biodiversity, especially those that reconcile conservation and human activities like food production,” he added.

As country representatives gather in China next year to discuss the proposed Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the study cautions against strict enforcement of the 30 by 30 plan, but supports another target within the framework: that of ensuring land- and sea-use planning integrates production and conservation goals.

“We didn’t take implausible assumptions … we’re not asking for a reshuffling of land use around the world,” Visconti said. “We instead explored what would happen if different planning authorities collaborated to make land-use decisions for people and nature, together. And we found that this makes great advancement in biodiversity targets possible.”

Banner image of Mam Indigenous women harvesting pine nuts. Photo credit: Sergio Izquierdo

Citation:

Fastré, C., van Zeist, W., Watson, J. E. M., & Visconti, P. (2021). Integrated spatial planning for biodiversity conservation and food production. One Earth, 4(11), 1635-1644. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2021.10.014

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Editor’s note: This story was supported by XPRIZE Rainforest as part of their five-year competition to enhance understanding of the rainforest ecosystem. In respect to Mongabay’s policy on editorial independence, XPRIZE Rainforest does not have any right to assign, review, or edit any content published with their support.

CORRECTION: Updates researchers’ comments in the first and third paragraphs.