Can we restore nature while producing food at lower costs?

Blog by Dr Yiorgos Vittis 

The need to feed a growing global population sustainably is undisputed. Debate rages about how to do that, and ideas about more efficient agriculture combined with converting some current agri-landscapes to dedicated nature zones abound. There is no one simple answer, but my colleagues and I have been modelling the potential for lowering food production costs by working globally to produce the right food in the right place at the same time as separating land for nature. We found that an optimal agricultural shift would release almost half of the current cropland extent and reduce current food production costs by approximately 40%.


Agriculture contributes to addressing global challenges including production of adequate food for 10 billion people and environmental conservation. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which 193 nations signed up in 2015, aim to be a blueprint for a sustainable future for all, and among other things to achieve food security and promote sustainable agriculture, setting the target of “doubling agricultural productivity”. In light of this, the concept of land-sparing comes up frequently in discussions.

Land-sparing recommends restoring or creating non-farmland habitat in agricultural landscapes instead of agricultural production; for example, woodland, natural grassland, wetland, and meadow. Land-sparing has been found to have the capacity to release nearly 50% of the current cropland extent by spatially optimizing fertilizer inputs while producing present food volumes.

The way in which production takes place through this model requires larger amounts of inputs including mainly fertiliser and irrigation that ultimately result in the intensification of agriculture. For many, this increase would mean higher costs, as a result of more fertiliser and irrigation (and other inputs including labour and machinery) needed.


So what does this mean for food prices?

In our analysis, we examine 10 major crops (barley, groundnut, maize, potato, sugar beet, rice, sunflower, sorghum, soybean and wheat) and find that, at local scales, food production costs may increase, owing to the more intensive use of inputs. Nonetheless, the reduction of cultivated land by 50% overcompensates the slightly higher local-scale costs enabling an improved overall cost-effectiveness. As such, on a global scale, we find that food production costs could decrease by 40%. And our results tell us that long-run food prices should continue to decrease even under such strong environmental policies.

We must keep in mind that the food production costs are only one part of the land-sparing debate and not the end of this discussion. Agricultural transitions in more sustainable systems require technical knowledge but also use of best available techniques that in certain geographies may be limited due to local constraints such as economic resources. Furthermore, the geographic reallocation of food systems could have significant effects on global food trade and further social implications, for example, agricultural worker surpluses in the areas that will be spared for nature restoration. Addressing the complex social inequalities attached to a more efficient and environmentally sustainable agriculture requires further interventions for groups leaving agriculture, fast increasing non-agricultural job opportunities.

These parameters need to be examined and understood in a wide context so that discussions bring in all stakeholders and include technological and institutional interventions. This will enable a meaningful transition for the smallholder farmers globally, providing non-farm (sources of employment outside the farm gate) and diversification (crop diversification, value added products, agritourism) options as alternatives to lessen or abandon agriculture as the principal livelihood activity. If the where and how we produce food, together with the social and trade implications of this shift become part of the discussion for global sustainable development, we are more likely to reach a solution to enhance food security in a win-win strategy for the economy and the environment.