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To save nature, we need to redesign the world

Politicians have become too shy about their role in land planning. If they’re serious about protecting nature, they must adopt a radical plan of landscaping so we can produce enough food on less land, while creating space for nature. Hidde Boersma, one of our Reboot Food campaigners, offers a bold vision.


Image: KamranAydinov/Freepik


In the Netherlands, there is little progress in saving our nation’s most popular bird: the black-tailed godwit. While some 10,000 of these meadow birds were counted in the mid-1980s, only 4,000 remain today. And so the characteristic ‘grutto, grutto’ sound is becoming increasingly rare.

The same goes for the calls of skylarks, lapwings and grouse, among others, all of which are drastically declining in number. The latter is even close to extinction, surviving only on the Sallandse Heuvelrug.

The main cause of the decline lies in changing habitats. Black-tailed godwits and their counterparts are ‘cultural followers’; they conquered the Netherlands when its inhabitants started cultivating more and more land for small-scale agriculture, from 1800 onwards. Bird populations peaked around the 1960s and 1970s. From then on, the effects of agricultural modernisation began to tick up.

With increasingly intensive tillage, more frequent mowing, lowering of groundwater levels and the disappearance of thickets and hedges along fields, most bird species found it difficult to cope. The human activity that made them so successful ​​– agriculture – also led to their decline.

‘If agricultural nature management were abolished altogether, the negative effects on biodiversity would be limited’ - David Kleijn, researcher

Much is being done to save the godwit and the skylark. Ever since the 1990s, when the decline became more and more obvious, conservationists and farmers have been trying to transform farmland to make it once again more friendly to birds. This is mainly done through extensification measures within so-called agricultural nature management, such as reduced fertilisation, less ploughing, the creation of flowery field edges, and puddle/wetland measures, whereby the lowest parts of the land are flooded for a while each year.

This has, unfortunately, yielded little result. Researcher David Kleijn of Wageningen University noted in a 2012 report that ‘if agricultural nature management were abolished altogether, the negative effects on biodiversity would be limited’.

The reason for the policy’s failure is simple: meadow and field birds are picky. Extensification measures within agricultural nature management reduce yields by about 10 to 20%, but that still results in land use far too intensive for the black-tailed godwit to feel comfortable.

According to Henk Hut, biologist at Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch government organisation for management of nature reserves, farmers should at least halve their yields. He notes: ‘If you want to help the black-tailed godwit and the ruff, you have to go to a maximum of sixty grams of nitrogen per hectare, while farmers are now throwing more than double that. You have to go way back in the way of farming to really help nature, more or less to the way it was done in the 1950s. But it is impossible to make a living from that now.’

It is therefore time for a radically different strategy – one that no longer attempts to combine food production with bird habitats.

The more we do on small amounts of land, the more space there is for ‘real’ nature, the only place where animals and plants actually flourish

Over the past decades, many studies from around the world have shown that if biodiversity is what we care about, the best thing we can do is to focus on intensifying agriculture on the most fertile land to free up space for nature. The more we do on small amounts of land, the more space there is for ‘real’ nature, the only place where animals and plants actually flourish.

Research in Ghana, Kazakhstan and the Andes, among others, shows that while nature-friendly agriculture harbours higher biodiversity, too much land, and thus nature, has to be sacrificed for it (due to lower yields), resulting in a net loss of biodiversity.

The ever-recurring conclusion: strictly separating functions works better than trying to intertwine them.

For a long time, it was unclear how much this strategy of strict separation also applies to areas with many cultural followers, birds that love agriculture, such as the black-tailed godwit. However, a number of recent studies (see below) suggest that here, too, it is best to separate food production from nature.

In countries like the Netherlands, the land released by intensification should then be converted not to forest or swamp but to cultural landscape, as was common in the early part of the last century. This means farms that produce food, but to a very small extent: they function mainly as bird sanctuaries, and will have to be financed accordingly.

Images: Ton Velduizen/Pixabay, Tom Fisk/Pexels


This conclusion follows in part from work carried out by Cambridge researcher Claire Feniuk in eastern Poland. Historically, that area has many low-yielding hay meadows, which are home to particular kinds of biodiversity. Feniuk and her colleague studied as many as 175 bird species and concluded initially that separation worked better than interbreeding.

However, an even better strategy turned out to be one that uses three compartments. In this plan, part of the land is designated for intensive agriculture and part for nature, with a buffer zone of very extensive agriculture in between. In this way, most birds came into their own.

Tom Finch of the Centre for Conservation Science in the UK has come to a similar conclusion. Together with colleagues, he studied more than 100 bird species in two areas in England and found that a three-compartment system works best. He argues that if you look purely at field and meadow birds, a switch to very extensive farming is the most successful.

However, with food consumption remaining the same, that would mean leaving no room for forest-loving birds, for example, so it is better to divide the landscape into three compartments with separate functions.

Nevertheless, it is important to realise that there are losers even with this strategy: it is impossible to keep all birds happy.

A better strategy uses three compartments: part of the land is for intensive agriculture and part for nature, with a buffer zone of extensive agriculture in between

This knowledge requires a drastic revision of current policies. Virtually all European countries opt for extensification, hoping to intertwine nature and agriculture, and thus save biodiversity.

The Netherlands, for example, is fully committed to nature-inclusive agriculture, while France was aiming in 2018 for 15% organic agriculture by 2022, where it was 7.5% at the time. The European Green Deal, the European Commission’s grand plan for a climate-neutral continent, also focuses on extensification and on interweaving nature with food production.

This policy reflects demands by several NGOs, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who have promoted extensive agriculture for years – from organic farming to agroecology and food forests.

However, it’s known that organic agriculture achieves about 20% lower yields than conventional agriculture. This not only means we’ll need to use more land to produce the same amount of food. It also means that the latest scientific knowledge on separating functions appears to reach politicians and environmental leaders rather slowly.

The main danger is that the freed-up space is not converted to nature, but is used to produce even more food, or is taken up by towns and villages

A transition to separation requires another revision of standing policies, namely a reappraisal of spatial planning. After all, the main danger of separation tactics is that although intensification takes place, the freed-up space is not converted to nature, but is used to produce even more food, or is taken up by towns and villages. Good, guided landscaping is therefore crucial.

At the moment, this is lacking: the last few decades have seen a huge slump in spatial planning – something the Netherlands, with its high population density in a small plot of land, used to be quite good at. Since the 1990s, landscape planning has been decentralised: provinces and municipalities now deal with planning, with little national guidance, let alone vision. This results in a cluttering of the landscape.

Decentralisation of spatial planning is driven by neoliberal ideology, which gained ground in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Small government, self-reliance and a free market that will sort everything out was the motto. In recent years, it has become clear that this ideology has had disastrous consequences for education, healthcare and policing, with declining performance and dissatisfied employees.

And so, the landscape has also suffered.

Images: PublicCo/Pixabay, Schwoaze/Pixabay


An additional reason for reassessing spatial planning is the choices being made for the energy transition. To get rid of fossil fuels, most European countries are turning to solar, wind and biomass – and these take up a considerable amount of land. This is because such renewable energy sources are ‘diluted’, which means that solar provides about 7 watts per m2, and wind less than 2. Contrast that with oil or coal, both of which provide more than 100 W/m2, and it is clear that the area needed to generate energy will expand in the near future.

The most problematic energy source is biomass, which is crucial in many scenarios for 100% renewable energy as it can, in theory, supply energy around the clock, when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Biomass comes in the form of corn, grain, palm oil or trees, all of which disappear into the incinerator to generate energy. Depending on the crop, this yields only about 0.05 W/m2 on average, and so the use of space is huge.

Couldn’t that be done differently? Yes indeed, there is a very dense form of low-carbon power generation: nuclear power. Uranium contains such an incredible amount of energy that nuclear power produces 240 watts per square metre. Unfortunately, expanding this form of energy has been politically unfeasible for decades, partly due to strong opposition from environmental organisations.

Now, we need to think carefully about where those solar panels, wind turbines and biomass fields will be located. Especially with the former, this consideration hardly ever happens now. In the Netherlands, with the help of subsidies, farmers are haphazardly converting fertile farmland into solar farms because they guarantee a more stable income than growing cereals. Some municipalities are even considering putting solar panels in nature reserves or on open water.

Limiting the acreage humanity uses for food and energy production is crucial in the fight against climate change

It is high time for some old-fashioned government steering on this. The knife of a good land development policy cuts both ways: preserving and expanding existing nature helps the energy transition in its fight for a stable climate.

A study by Glen Peters, head of the Norwegian Center for International Climate Research (CICERO), shows that so-called land use change, or the conversion of forests into farms, is the second most important cause of climate change. More CO2 is released into the air by cutting down forests than by burning oil or gas. Only coal has been more harmful.

One conclusion is clear: limiting the acreage humanity uses for food and energy production is crucial in the fight against climate change.

Momentum seems to be building for more governmental guidance on landscaping. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University President Louise Fresco and former ministers are urging the government to undertake more direction. Elsewhere, think tanks and scientists argue it’s time for more landscaping. Detailed plans have even appeared, such as here and here.

These are plans that firmly affect people’s lives, and they should therefore take at least a generation to implement

Many of these visions and plans refer to the report Grond voor keuzen (Ground for Choices), drawn up as early as 1992 by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) under the leadership of Rudy Rabbinge, emeritus professor of sustainable food production and now chair of RePlanet Nederland. Rabbinge proposed dividing the Netherlands into an agricultural and main ecological structure – the former for food production, the latter for nature.

Currently, more than half the Dutch land area, about 2 million hectares, is used for arable and livestock farming. Rabbinge and colleagues show that the Netherlands could probably do with only half this area to produce as much as it does now. At the time, the report received little acclaim and disappeared into a drawer. It is time to dust it off and use it as a guide for the redesign of the Netherlands – in fact, it could be a model for redesigning Europe.

The report recommends concentrating agriculture on the most fertile land, because that is where the highest yields can be achieved, with the fewest inputs of fertilisers and pesticides for example. It is an area roughly running from Zeeland, through the so-called Bible Belt, past Flevoland and reaching the clay soils of Groningen and Friesland in the north.

Other functions must be found for the areas that drop out as agricultural locations. In the peat meadow area of the Green Heart, for instance, the groundwater level will have to be raised sharply to turn it into a biodiverse swamp, or an area for very extensive cattle breeding in the service of meadow birds. Currently, that area is suffering from oxidation of the peat, which is accompanied by hefty CO2 emissions. The sandy soils in Drenthe, due to have even more water management trouble with climate change on the horizon, could function as a field bird sanctuary.

These are plans that firmly affect people’s lives, and they should therefore take at least a generation to implement. Nevertheless, there are opportunities, as currently 40% of farms have no heir. At present, the land usually goes to neighbours, but with the help of a land bank, the government could buy up these lands and change their function.

Images: Frank Cone/Pexels, dianaparkhouse/Pixabay


The story can also serve as a guide for the redesign of Europe. The report calculates that Europe can make do with a quarter of its arable land to produce as much food as it does now, if agriculture concentrates on the most fertile areas.

Although farmers in Europe achieve on average higher yields than those in the rest of the world (excluding North America), differences within Europe are still large. Farmers in Latvia and southern Portugal, according to a study, achieve only a third of the grain yields per hectare of their Dutch and Belgian counterparts.

Optimising European agriculture would mean that considerable intensification could still be achieved in some fields, while at the same time taking land out of production elsewhere. A maximum reduction of 75% may be too much of a good thing because some agricultural areas, such as alpine meadows, also have social, historical or tourist significance, but reducing the area by 40% is certainly a possibility.

A reduction in agricultural area could also benefit the remaining farmers. One of the main reasons they get low prices for their products is overproduction. Over the past half century, yields in Europe have risen faster than the population. Normally, the market solves such a surplus by bankrupting farmers, but the European Union’s subsidy system keeps farmers in production who would otherwise not survive. Through tight landscaping, the remaining farmers earn a better living.

Moreover, because their main task is food production, farmers’ lives become easier and they are less torn between society’s expectations around landscape and environment on the one hand and sufficient production on the other.

Europe can make do with a quarter of its arable land to produce as much food as it does now, if agriculture concentrates on the most fertile areas

The release of large amounts of land makes room for a promising new movement within conservation: rewilding. This is a current that aims to return large areas to their pre-human-influenced state, including the (re)introduction of large grazers and top predators.

The Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, with its konik horses and red deer, was one of Europe’s first major rewilding projects. It was internationally renowned, but under political pressure it had to make way for a park more focused on recreation from the end of 2018.

Elsewhere in Europe, the movement is gaining support. In north-eastern Portugal, a small 1,000-hectare area of farmland has been converted into the Faia Brava nature reserve since 2000. It has improved the populations of several vultures, eagles and herons, among others.

The Danube region, the delta near the Black Sea on the border of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, is currently being transformed into Europe’s largest wetland, with space for pelicans, cormorants, jackals and boars. There are even calls for rewilding to reintroduce the brown bear in parts of the UK, where it disappeared in the Middle Ages. Strong landscaping policies make such rewilding projects possible across Europe.

The release of large amounts of land makes room for a promising new movement within conservation: rewilding

Even at the highest level, that of the world as a whole, it is time for landscaping to be taken seriously. Austrian scientists have shown that a sophisticated global sparing policy, with the strongest protection in so-called biodiversity hotspots, can halve the area of agricultural land in the coming decades.

This is especially true for the African continent, which is experiencing the ‘perfect storm’ of very low yields and an exploding population, forecast to grow from 1.3 billion today to 4 billion by 2100. Farmers there often achieve only a tenth of Dutch yields and there is a severe lack of both market access and inputs like fertilisers and good seeds. Research into the gap between the yields achieved and those possible shows that Africans can produce enough food without sacrificing much extra land to do so. It is the only way to protect the continent’s rich wildlife.

But studies in Asia also show the importance of landscaping. Research on Kalimantan shows that regardless of which type of farming farmers practise there (more organic or more intensive), a well-chosen landscaping policy gives the best results when it comes to biodiversity conservation.

Landscaping also allows for a sound trade-off between nature and economy. For Western environmental organisations, the first reflex on seeing tropical forests destroyed is often to attempt to ban the crops grown there, as with palm oil from Southeast Asia and soy from South America. But this ignores the importance of local, often smallholder farmers, whose livelihoods depend on growing such crops.

Palm oil production in Malaysia, for example, takes up more than 10% of gross domestic product (GDP), and 35% of production is in the hands of small farmers. By agreeing where production is allowed and where it is not, the rainforest can be protected.

Farmers might receive money for providing scenic beauty, biodiversity or carbon storage, as they rewild their lands

There is currently one exemplary country that has set up its policies according to the land sparing strategy: Costa Rica. That country had one of the highest deforestation rates in the world in the 1980s, but has since reversed the trend and is now seen as a paragon of sustainability. It has become so through a policy of intensification, land consolidation and landscaping.

Key to its success was the introduction of the so-called Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) system in the late 1990s, where farmers who wanted to return their land to nature received a yearly fee to do so. The PES system was financed through a 3.5% tax on fuel. The system organically resulted in a land sparing policy, as farmers on marginal soils were happy to apply for the PES funds, while their counterparts on better soils kept producing food, as that was more lucrative. Costa Rica is now the market leader in bananas and pineapples, among other products, while at the same time it has seen its forest cover almost double from 27 to 55%.

The Costa Rican example might complement the above-mentioned study by Rabbinge. Currently, the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) forces farmers on marginal soils to keep farming, as farms are only eligible for subsidies when they produce food – the so-called hectare subsidy. With some small tweaks, those farmers might receive this money for providing scenic beauty, biodiversity or carbon storage, as they rewild their lands.

This way Europe might be transformed into a beautiful, green and prosperous continent.


Hidde Boersma is a Netherlands-based award-winning science writer and speaker. His articles appear in leading newspapers. He has several TEDx talks, including one on how to feed the world without destroying it. His documentary films include Well Fed and Paved Paradise. Hidde is part of the RePlanet campaigns team for Reboot Food.


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