A synthesis of research on land systems and sustainability from scientists including Rinku Roy Chowdhury, associate professor of geography, has been published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Proceedings article offers a set of principles that can guide scientists, policymakers, and practitioners to meet sustainability challenges in land use — a major component for addressing global challenges such as climate change and food security.
“Part of the lessons that we focus on in this article come from a need to get across a set of guiding principles that we collectively must keep in mind if we truly want to manage land sustainably,” says Roy Chowdhury. “To manage land sustainably, we also need to manage it more equitably.”
The authors reflected on land system science research that has been conducted worldwide for more than 30 years and organized it into 10 truths.
Among those truths:
Worldwide, about 85% of farms are small farms of less than five acres. However, the majority of farmland area around the globe is contained in relatively few, very large farms. This reflects fundamental inequalities in land ownership and access, leads to disproportionate impacts on agricultural economy and trade, and illustrates the disparities between the distribution of benefits and burdens, says Roy Chowdhury.
The topic of nature conservation, says Roy Chowdhury, usually elicits competing viewpoints such as prescriptions for land sparing (setting aside land for exclusive nature preservation) or land sharing (where conservation and other human uses, such as agriculture, may coexist). But that either-or argument discounts the reality of many small farmers, who represent the majority of farmers worldwide. Many such farmers frequently use their fields for a variety of purposes, including fruit or timber trees and other natural vegetation in complex, diverse ecological arrangements with crops.
“We overlook that kind of complexity when we pitch the idea that it is either farms or nature while ignoring the fact that a substantial number of small farmers worldwide are not necessarily operating with that split set of values,” says Roy Chowdhury.
The researchers note that achieving sustainability is challenging due to differing beliefs and values, as well as the complexity of land systems. But they hope that the guiding principles they offer will provide a foundation for productive conversations about how land use can be both more equitable and sustainable.
Separately, Roy Chowdhury was one of the coordinating lead authors of a 2019 global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The report, a synthesis of global biodiversity, found that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.