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April 12, 2012

The Benefits of Ecosystem Services for Growers

Jeff Dlott, American Vegetable Grower
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“More with less, save the rest.” The three key concepts set forth in this phrase have been at the center of many recent domestic and international conversations about the future of agriculture. The discussion regarding the first concept follows the logic that food production will need to double by 2050 to meet demand.   

The “less” concept is often framed as the need to use resources including water, energy, fertilizers, and other inputs more efficiently. To meet projected demand, yields per acre will need to increase, as there is not enough land that could or should be brought under agricultural production. In addition, in many regions there is a lack of availability of resources, most notably water, that places constraints on using more resources to produce more food. The “save the rest” notion argues that there is a global economic, environmental, and social need to conserve remaining forests, grasslands, and other natural ecosystems as well as protect important resources like drinking water.    

Another perspective on what “more with less, save the rest” means is that many farmers and ranchers are already producing more than food, including environmental and social benefits that are increasingly being referred to as “ecosystems services.”

Ecosystem Services Defined

A common definition of ecosystem services is “the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems.” This is the definition developed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a highly respected international endeavor completed in 2005 on the state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide. The MEA also provided a detailed framework that categorized ecosystem services into four areas: Supporting Services (i.e. nutrient cycling, soil formation, etc.), Provisioning Services (i.e. food, freshwater, wood and fiber, fuel, etc.), Regulating Services (i.e. climate regulation, flood regulation, disease regulation, water purification, etc.), and Cultural Services (i.e. aesthetic, educational, recreational, etc.).  

Earlier this year the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel, which I serve on, formulated and approved the following ecosystems services definition: “In agriculture, ecosystem services are defined as the multiple benefits we gain from farming and ranching including crop and livestock production. In addition to valuable open space and wildlife habitat, the management decisions and conservation practices of farmers and ranchers also enhance environmental quality, provide recreational opportunities, and offer social benefits.” Below are examples of these types of benefits.

• Wildlife Habitats: provide habitats for resident and transient wildlife populations

• Nutrient Cycling: Provide nutrient storage and cycling

• Food, Fiber, Fuel Production: Provide food, fiber, and fuel to sustain a growing global population

• Recreation and Cultural: Provide opportunities for recreational activities

• Soil Structure, Formation, and Fertility: Provide opportunities for enhancing the soil system, promote organic matter buildup/carbon sequestration, and prevent disturbances

• Biodiversity Conservation: Promote biodiversity

• Water Cycling: Maintain soil moisture and regulate water movement/cycling

• Atmospheric Gas/Climate Regulation: Regulate atmospheric chemical composition.

• Pest Control: Control pests and weeds by natural enemies and weed seed predators, respectively

• Pollination Services: Contribute to fruit, nut, and vegetable production.

Ecosystem Services Pilot Projects

Last year CDFA Secretary Karen Ross reconstituted the Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel (EFA SAP). Two key objectives of the EFA SAP are to compile information on the net environmental impacts that agriculture creates for the environment and identify incentives that may be provided to encourage agricultural practices with environmental benefits. To accomplish these objectives, adopting an agriculture-centric ecosystems services definition was a key first step.  

The panel is now working to develop an ecosystem services evaluation framework that can be used to recognize environmental value, and identify and prioritize incentives to reward growers for producing multiple ecosystem services benefits. The next steps are to work with interested groups to implement a series of pilot projects that could serve as the basis to develop more comprehensive policies that create additional sources of revenue, recognition, and regulatory certainty for farmers and ranchers that are net producers of ecosystems services. At least one pilot with vegetable growers is highly likely.  

Though not as catchy as the opening line, I prefer the statement “Pay farmers for producing more ecosystem services with less and saving the rest.”