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Can Agriculture and Biodiversity Coexist?

To free up land for biodiversity conservation while satisfying growing food demand, techno-optimist narratives suggest indefinitely increasing agricultural productivity, including through massive pesticide use. But this view, which has made its way from an academic niche into corporate and policy-making circles, overlooks the complexity of natural ecosystems and the market dynamics that regulate access to food.

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The idea that increasing agricultural productivity will free up land for biodiversity and solve global hunger is gaining popularity in Europe and beyond. In Our World in Data, Hannah Ritchie argued that “If we can find ways to produce enough food on less cropland we can preserve more habitat for the world’s wildlife.” In December 2022, Dutch MP Nilüfer Gündoğan claimed that thanks to agricultural intensification, “in Europe alone, we could give 75 per cent of our agricultural surface back to nature, without this leading to cold winters, food shortages, economic scarcity.”

Gündoğan’s speech was inspired by British writer and environmental activist George Monbiot’s book Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (2022)Monbiot was also interviewed in the documentary Paved Paradise, which advocates for high-yielding, biotechnology-aided agriculture, and garnered significant praise in the Netherlands. This techno-optimist vision is particularly popular in corporate circles. According to the agrochemical giant Syngenta, “Reducing the amount of arable land needed per unit of crop allows leaving existing untouched land in its natural state.”