SEC lecture, 11.03.2021


The future of the European agro-food system in the light of the “Land-sparing vs land-sharing” debate


During the last 50 years, the European agro-food system has evolved towards more and more territorial specialization, with intensification on the best lands, fostered by increasing integration of agricultural products in international trade markets, and abandonment of agriculture on less suitable lands.
These trends can be examined within the framework of the “land sparing versus land sharing” debate. For a fringe of tenants of land sparing, intensification on the best soils would allow producing food with limited spatial footprint, hence devoting more space to nature and biodiversity. Land sparing thus makes it possible to optimize the profitability of the functioning of the geographical space, once the ecosystem services provided by natural spaces have been recognized and monetized. The injunction to spare land can also come from another, opposite, stream of thought, for which Nature is sanctified and must be preserved intact, far from human activities which inevitably destroy it. Reasoning ad absurdum, a scenario of extreme land sparing, relying on a-biotic agriculture and cells cultures, is established based on data from recent literature.
Changing perspective, the tenants of land sharing consider that nutrients, not land, have to be spared, ie nutrient cycles have to be closed, as the environmental losses of nutrients is the major environmental problem of intensive agriculture, spreading far beyond the limits of agricultural lands. Their concern is to share the planet not only with other humans, but with non-humans as well. An agro-ecological scenario for Europe in 2050 has been established in line with this vision of land sharing. It gives up land specialization in favor of a multifunctional conception of land planning, privileging local food supply with a healthy food regime, and excluding recourse to industrial fertilizers and pesticides. Overall, calculation shows that this scenario can feed Europe, while considerably limiting pressure on biodiversity. Intra-european trade would be halved compared to today; net exports of cereals and animal products outside of Europe would still be possible at a level of around 10% of the current ones, while no import of feed from South American countries would be required.

Gilles Billen got his PhD at the University of Brussels in 1976, where he later headed the Group of Aquatic Environmental Microbiology for 15 years, devoted to the study of microbial processes in estuarine and marine areas, in connection with the cycles of carbon and nutrients. In 1997, he moved to Paris, and joined the CNRS, for taking, until 2007, the direction of the National Research Program on the Seine River (PIREN-Seine). He developed biogeochemical modelling tools, aimed at testing scenarios for agricultural systems and water resources management. He also participated in various international forums, such as the SCOPE-UNESCO Global NEWS program and the NinE (Nitrogen in Europe) ESF Network, and participated to the editorial team of the European Nitrogen Assessment. He is now conducting interdisciplinary research at Sorbonne-University in Paris, devoted the modelling of nutrient transfer between agricultural land and hydrosystems, at various scales from farm and landscape scale to regional or global scale. He is teaching a course on Territorial Biogeochemistry.

Presentation: Dr. Gilles Billen, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

Moderation: Priv.-Doz. Dr. Simone Gingrich, Zentrum für Umweltgeschichte, Institut für Soziale Ökologie, BOKU Wien

Time/Place: 11 March, 18:15 - 19:15 on Zoom (Registration at is required. The access link will be emailed to you before the event.)