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Natural Capital update: Land Layering

Eleanor Harris, Natural Capital and Carbon Leader at Galbraith,  calls for greater ambition in the way we think about land use.

The ‘three compartment model’ of land use was brought to prominence in public policy in 2021 in Henry Dimbleby’s national food report.

It is based on an old natural capital debate about the best way to use land: ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’. 

‘Land sparing’ means producing everything we need – food, clothing and timber – on as small an area of land as possible, to leave the greatest possible area for nature. Land is either intensively farmed, or a nature reserve.

‘Land sharing’ means using a much wider area for lower-intensity production which also supports biodiversity, for example by incorporating hedgerows into farmland.

These two models have been synthesised into the ‘three compartment model’ – high production, low nature-friendly production, and nature reserve.

My reservation about the three-compartment model is that it is unambitious.

First, it describes the way we use land already, and simply suggests shifting the proportions.

Second, it is like an economic theory which assumes we can only influence how we ‘slice the pie’. Any increase in productivity is a compromise for biodiversity, and vice versa. Yet by investing in natural capital we should be able to ‘grow the pie’. In fact, growing the pie is essential for our future wellbeing on this small planet. This is especially true in the UK, where we have already depleted nature across our islands, so while there are plenty of pockets of nature to nurture, there are no ‘fully natural’ ecosystems to ‘leave’.

So I’d like to introduce a third rhyming concept: ‘land layering’. Rather than setting aside land for nature, I’d like to see the focus of investment on long-term natural capital restoration projects which aim to become rich in biodiversity, production, carbon, and all the other ecosystem services we need.

This means corporates looking beyond efficiency and offsets, to get seriously ambitious about long-term investment in new regenerative systems such as agroforestry, paludiculture, or green cities – land-layering which is too complex for the ‘three compartment’ model.

It means rural groups with different priorities – farmers, ecologists, gamekeepers, foresters – need to get serious about working together, setting aside all their conventional answers yet pooling all their collective wisdom, to develop these richer, layered systems.


Maybe our new year resolution could be to do less compartmentalising, and more layering.