rice fields seen from the air

Emerging questions on sustainable land management

Feeding everyone well requires sustainable land management because food still comes from the soil. Are we asking the right questions about it?

An oxymoron is where contradictory terms appear in conjunction. How about this one? Sustainable land management.

In the professional community that I come from naming sustainable land management an oxymoron is heresy. I am likely to be struck off. Many of my colleagues in applied ecology and natural resource management are in pursuit of SLM, to use it’s affectionate moniker, like some sort of holy grail.  SLM is the cup with miraculous healing powers, providing eternal youth and sustenance in infinite abundance. Drink from the cup and the lost art of sustainable agriculture and use of the land that will come to you and make everything better. 

The prophets of agroecology, regenerative agriculture and even the few eccentrics who want to pay back the soil carbon debt to fix climate change are firm advocates of sustainable land management and believe they already have the grail. They will flame me too. 

I am open to ridicule. Why be so contrary?

First, we need to know what it is we are calling contradictory. 

The FAO defines sustainable land management as measures and practices adapted to biophysical and socio-economic conditions aimed at the protection, conservation and sustainable use of resources (soil, water and biodiversity) and the restoration of degraded natural resources and their ecosystem functions.

Read that definition again and you’ll see where I get the oxymoron.

It is impossible to manage land for the use of natural resources—we call most of this activity agriculture—and, at the same time, protect, conserve and restore. It is like trying to fill a bucket that has a big hole in it with water.

Agriculture takes nutrients off the land and puts them into humans and the animals that humans eat. These nutrients are rarely, if ever, recaptured. Instead, they end up in oceans and rivers, sometimes via sewage treatment works.  Over time this depletion of nutrients, soil carbon and soil biodiversity lowers fertility and plant production. Farmers replace this offtake with fertiliser inputs or move to new land when the soil is depleted.

Agriculture has been like this everywhere since it was invented 12,000 years ago but became a caricature of nutrient exploitation and soil degradation with intensive, industrial-scale agriculture in the last 120 years. 

Maybe I am being too harsh. It is possible to manage land with the future in mind or with an intent to maintain the resource rather than exploiting it or both. But when has humanity ever been so thoughtful?

Here is the thing.

Humans are the most successful species the planet has produced. 

This is true if success is measured in biomass, resource use, or the appropriation of resources that restricts availability to all the other species on the planet. It also applies to ingenuity, technology use, and adaptability. No other large mammal lives everywhere or comes close to the ability of Homo sapiens to decouple from ecological constraints. 

And there is one huge success that has eluded all other species. We are unique in our ability to capture and use exogenous energy—more on this later—with a once-in-history outcome. We have converted fossil fuels into 8 billion humans, adding 6.2 billion since 1900.

Now we are forced to use natural resources to support the people we have made from the fossil fuel pulse. In the process, we are degrading natural resources, especially the soil, and are wholly dependent on the energy pulse that will come to an end. 

Despite all our successes, humanity is vulnerable to collapse and has failed to overcome our basic instinct to make more people—the global population is still increasing at 8,000 an hour.

Oxymoron it may be but it is easy to see why sustainable land management is pursued with religious fervour through research.

Let’s take a look at some of the research questions asked by seekers of sustainable land management truths. 

landscape of agricultural fields and vinyards on the south coast of NSW, Australia

Land managed primarily as vinyards and livestock production on the south coast of NSW, Australia. Photo by Alloporus. 

Sustainable land management research questions

In the spirit of the contrarian, this section is not comprehensive. It will offend some researchers who are asking smarter questions. But the ideas come from respected primary literature sources so are taken seriously by the scientists.

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. 

I look at one set of ‘emerging questions’ for sustainable land management from the scientific literature by presenting them verbatim and then commenting 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 soil degradation, such as yield loss, water stress, nutrient or soil carbon depletion, weeds, pests, and soil erosion… 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 good 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 the historical exploitation of land, but even if a communal model was more efficient, centuries of land rights and use are 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 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 are all adding external energy to the system’s ecology. The trade-off for the extra production that inputs generate is that the system fails without the inputs.

Intensification is a cover word for agriculture changing from a net energy source, with more food energy out than energy in, to a net energy sink. This is only possible because humans have acquired exogenous energy—energy from outside the body—from fossil fuels and had the ingenuity to build machines to apply the energy to fields, using more energy in the process.

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. 

A group of sustainable land management experts excited by what a farmer has to tell them. Photo by Alloporus.

Some sustainable land management experts excited by what a farmer has to tell them. Photo by Alloporus.

Asking better sustainable land management questions.

Before I disappear into a hole of despair at my academic colleagues’ naivety and intellectual snobbery, let’s back up a minute.

What does the big picture tell us?

  • There are 8 billion humans alive, 7% of humans that have ever lived, and our numbers are growing.
  • Food production is adequate to feed everyone well for now, thanks to the fossil fuel pulse and an impressive six-continent food supply chain, but there are food security issues everywhere that stem from global and local inequality. 
  • Meanwhile, poor metabolic health is a pandemic, with a billion people overweight and 3 billion more suffering from one or other nutrient deficiency.
  • Food still comes from the land, like it always has, and that land is degrading. The water to keep crops and livestock alive is depleted, often polluted and increasingly unreliable.
  • The fossil fuel pulse will end.

The big-picture suggests some equally big questions that bring us back to sustainable land management.

  • How should humans use the renewable and capital stocks of planetary resources? 
  • Can we feed everyone well? 
  • And, if we can feed everyone, how do we do it without making a mess?
  • What happens when the fossil inputs become too expensive for most farmers or become so scarce that farmers cannot access them?
  • Should humane control of human population growth be implemented? 
  • Can our social contracts survive the resource squeeze?

And I could go on getting closer to what the scientists might recognise as testable hypotheses.

The truth is this.

Humanity has to grow most of our food in the soil. And we need a lot of food, starting with 22 trillion kilocalories daily and enough nutrition to maintain metabolic health. Food insecurity already affects a billion people and malnutrition at least half the people alive. Sustainable food is a big deal.

Food makes many of the big questions converge on what we do with land to grow and rear enough food to feed everyone well. And if we want to grow enough food without trashing other resources or failing to reverse biodiversity loss, then we have to adopt sustainable land management. 

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

But these are not questions that the SLM researchers ask.

What sustainably FED suggests

At sustainably FED, we don’t like to rant. Our job is to try and explain the bigger picture and to ask better questions.

But when it comes to sustainable land management, we see the questions being asked are bonkers. “Blah, blah, blah”, as Greta Thunberg so eloquently puts it. 

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

Instead of ranting further, here is what we suggest as more tractable and relevant sustainable land management questions that must be asked to set the context for the detailed hypotheses that follow: 

  • 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 know how 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? What are the social constraints on land management decisions? 
  • How long can soil health be maintained, given poor land management decisions? Can soil recover when rested?
  • If nutrients are mined, what does it take to put them back without impacting soil function? 

Science source

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.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed