rice fields seen from the air

Emerging questions on sustainable land management

It is hard to know what new information humanity needs to survive and prosper. What should the research questions be?

Humans are the most successful species the planet has produced. A true statement so long as success means biomass, resource use, and the appropriation of resources that restricts availability to all the other species.

Yet we are also vulnerable to collapse and have failed to overcome our basic instinct to make more people. 

We have converted fossil fuels into 7.87 billion humans, adding 6.2 billion since 1900.

These big picture facts suggest some equally big questions.

  • How should humans use the renewable and capital stocks of planetary resources? 
  • Should humane control of human population growth be implemented? 
  • Can our social contracts survive the resource squeeze?
  • Can we feed everyone well? 
  • And, if we can feed everyone, how do we do it without making a mess?

At least for the time being, humanity has to grow most of our food in the soil, making many of the big questions about land use and land management. 

Drill down a layer and it also means asking about the impacts of biofuel policies, dietary patterns, cropland expansion, and productivity changes on agricultural markets.

But these are not questions that researchers ask.

They are still too broad and laden with values rather than objectivity. Standard research methods and the confines of the academic research process with its time-bound grants and small team scale need tighter questions that can be turned into hypotheses to establish facts.

The scientific method requires a research question that can be restated as a testable hypothesis. An outcome statement that states the cause for an effect. 

The application of nitrogen fertiliser increases crop yield by 20%.

If the question is big or vague or lacks a measurable outcome, the scientific method struggles, and so do the researchers. 

There is also, dare we say, a little intellectual snobbery. Such general questions are not diving deep enough for academic intelligence. No matter whether answers to the broad, value-laden questions on how to feed everyone will mean humanity making it or not.

Closer to the researcher’s liking are questions about, for example, sustainable land management. The critical area of resource use that the World Bank defines as “a knowledge-based procedure that helps integrate land, water, biodiversity and environmental management to meet rising food and fibre demands, while sustaining ecosystem services and livelihoods

researchers in a laboratory discuss results of gel eletrophoresis
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Sustainably FED explains how the ideas behind sustainable land management are fundamental to food security today, and to meet food demand for the projected additional 2 billion people who will need to be fed by 2050 in our upcoming FED sustainably Course. BTW this is not us in the picture, we are far trendier.

Sustainable land management research questions

The kinds of questions researchers say are emerging for land management are grouped under three themes: 

  1. diversity of land systems, 
  2. place-based research and 
  3. new scenarios. 

We take a look at one set of ‘emerging questions’ for sustainable land management by presenting them verbatim and then comment on their relevance to feeding everyone well.

Diversity of land systems 

  • Are the correct drivers addressed for investigating solutions on sustainable land management, considering the knowledge, values and rules define the decision context?
  • How to capture countries’ activities and characteristics properly to account for emerging issues such as large scale land acquisition, or long-distance externalisation of effects within global agro-economic models?
  • What are the options to govern land as a global commons?

We already know the drivers. 

In no particular order, they are subsistence, profit, and expediency. This translates to land clearing, shifting agriculture, and a tendency toward intensification of production through energy and nutrient subsidies. It often leads to over-exploitation of the soil that introduces other drivers associated with degradation, such as yield loss, water stress, nutrient or soil carbon depletion, weeds, pests, soil eroision… the list of immediate issues can be very long.

We also know that self-interest is powerful because farming is a high input, high-risk operation that takes great courage. Few humans take on tasks with these characteristics without some reward be that food for their family or profit.

We already track land use and have a reasonable vision of land ownership including deals to acquire land. Each jurisdiction has a known level of control over these outcomes. Modern models are already pretty good at the externalities. Less good are the attempts to pull them in.

Why should we govern land as a global commons? Presumably this is a reflex response to historical exploitation of land but even if a communal model was more efficient, centuries of land rights and use is near impossible to turn around without a shift to authoritarian governance.

Place-based research

  • Which are the next steps to enable global agro-economic models to address a larger set of commodities, different land-holding systems, capture nutrient cycling and provide sufficient information on food security question on a finer spatial resolution?
  • How can the tele-coupling concept be operationalized in research to better underpin and embed life cycle analysis in global relations?
  • Which data gaps should be closed to better account for local variations in the socio-economic context of sustainable land management?

Come again?

Seriously, what on earth has this technobabble got to do with feeding everyone well?

Future perspectives and new scenarios

  • How to implement the mutual feedback of biodiversity and agricultural production in today’s global model system estimation global agricultural yields and estimate optimum intensification levels?
  • To what extent do concepts like sustainable intensification that claim to have synergies between SDGs really have potential, what are the trade-offs hidden in these systems and in what local context are such concepts applicable?
  • How can integrated scenarios capture the links between production and consumption, rebound effects and Jevons paradox?

Coupling biodiversity with food production is a great idea. Figuring out how diversity and biological activity mesh, especially in soil, is really helpful. It will generate critical insight into how much intensification is possible within the ecological integrity of a field or forest coop. Only we have something like this already. It’s called land managed within capability and it comes as a spatial data layer.

Intensification is another word for energy subsidy. Agriculture with inputs for tillage, fertiliser, irrigation, pesticides, and mechanical harvest is all adding external energy to the ecology of the system. The trade-off for the extra production that inputs generate is that the system fails without the inputs.

Do we even know the links between production and consumption? They are many and complex. For example, why do we produce so many hyper-processed foods that are consumed to make people obese and yet undernourished?

Jevons paradox? Sounds like a bit of that snobbery to me. As I had no idea what it meant, I asked Google.

Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress or government policy increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand. However, governments and environmentalists generally assume that efficiency gains will lower resource consumption, ignoring the possibility of the paradox arising


In short, never trust anything that comes out of economics. 

attentive people at a causal product demonstration  seminar
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

What sustainably FED suggests

We don’t like to rant but all this makes no sense.

“Blah, blah, blah” as Greta Thunberg so eloquently puts it. 

The overthinking pushes the real questions and necessary pragmatism out of the way and we are left with unanswerable drivel.

We prefer…

  • Who manages the land?
  • Do they have the social licence to make land management decisions? More strictly, do we trust land managers to act sustainably?
  • Do land managers have the knowledge to make good decisions? And do they have the capability and capacity to act on the knowledge?
  • Can land managers resist the immediacy of their need for subsistence or profit?
  • How long can soil health be maintained given poor land management decisions? Can soil recover when rested?
  • What are the social constraints on land management decisions? 

Science sources for this post

Seppelt, R., Verburg, P. H., Norström, A., Cramer, W., & Václavík, T. (2018). Focus on cross-scale feedbacks in global sustainable land management. Environmental Research Letters, 13 (9).

Hero image modified from photo by Stanislav Rozhkov on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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