Incorporating ecosystem service values in agricultural planning

ID-1006603Ecosystem services, “the benefits that people derive from nature” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), are rarely taken into account in the valuation of agricultural commodities, despite the impacts (both positive and negative) agriculture can have on such services, for example the provision of food and nutrition, climate regulation, water quality and soil fertility. Ecosystem services themselves can increase agricultural productivity and resilience. For example in Costa Rican coffee plantations, birds such as the yellow warbler, can reduce infestations of the coffee borer beetle by around half.

Research on ecosystem services has increased exponentially, from Gretchen Daily’s book, Nature’s Services in 1997, to the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment in 2005 and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) in 2010. Andrew Balmford and colleagues in 2002 investigated the economic implications for conserving wild land versus converting it to agriculture by including economic values for ecosystem services, finding a benefit-cost ratio of 100:1 for the preservation of natural habitats. Framing the issues in economic terms helps to identify the trade-offs that must be minimised.

Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) is a global partnership of organisations including UN agencies, governments, NGOs, academia and international organisations, which aims to “promote sustainable development by ensuring that natural resources are mainstreamed in development planning and national economic accounts”. Countries implementing this type of thinking include Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia, Madagascar, Philippines and Rwanda, where WAVES is working with government ministries of planning and finance and central banks to integrate ecosystem services, as opposed to GDP alone, into decision making.

Recently, and building on this work, a new model for assessing the values of ecosystem services in specific sites has been developed by a partnership of organisations including the University of Cambridge, BirdLife, UNEP-WCMC, RSPB, Tropical Biology Association and Anglia Ruskin University. The aim was to “develop and deploy a rapid assessment tool to understand how far conserving sites for their biodiversity importance also helps to conserve different ecosystem services relative to a converted state.” The resulting product, Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-Based Assessments (TESSA), was also designed to be used by non-experts, be quick to use, be reliable and be participatory.

Jenny Birch, of BirdLife, one of the developers of TESSA, gave a recent presentation illustrating the practicalities and benefits of using such a tool. The toolkit sets out a clear process and guidelines for assessing ecosystem services. As a first stage the site is defined in terms of its boundaries and socioeconomic, ecological and policy context. Then, through stakeholder workshops, the ecosystem services provided by the site as well threats to these services are identified. Following this an alternative site, one that is similar to the site of interest but has been managed differently, is identified, and ecosystem services originating from the alternative site are measured. The toolkit essentially facilitates the comparison of ecosystem services, in the categories global climate regulation, harvested wild goods, water-related services, nature-based recreation and cultivated goods, to be compared for different management and land use scenarios.

The toolkit has been applied in over 10 locations from Nepal to Kenya to Montserrat, and also Wicken Fen in the UK where there are plans for the restoration of fens on currently farmed arable land. The tool allowed the comparison of the economic benefits arising from agriculture with the benefits of restoration and use as a flood plain. The latter afforded more economic benefits although did not account for any compensation that would need to be paid to farmers. There are also other downsides to TESSA, for example it doesn’t cover the whole range of ecosystem services or all of their values, neither does it consider the sustainability and resilience of different management options and it does not implicitly include the degree to which results can be concluded with any certainty. Planned improvements include the broadening of services covered and the transformation from a paper-based to web-based tool.

As ecosystem services research and knowledge grow, the hope is that they can be given much more consideration in policy making. In particular, we need much more research on the wider impacts of different forms of agriculture in order to guide agricultural investments, for example, in sustainable intensification. But there is much debate over how ecosystem services should be framed e.g. in terms of economic or some other value. Despite economics being a key informer of policy the reduction of ecosystem services to purely monetary benefits can mean some of their value is lost. Finding the common ground, in terms of metrics, between agriculture and the environment is not a new challenge, but one that tools like TESSA and WAVES hope to contribute to.

 

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