Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans freely gain from properly-functioning ecosystems. One of the ecosystem services of soil is food, but that is only one of them.  Soil is crucial in managing both water and carbon on the planet, soil is also the source of much of the world's biodiversity and many of our medicines like antibiotics.  When we lose soil we lose so much more than ability to produce food.

Lets compare two farms: Farmer A produces a crop but also ensures there is no soil erosion on the farm, good water infiltration and a diverse array of plants to support pollinators and wild life. Farmer B produces the same crop but does none of these other important things. Farmer A and farmer B get paid exactly the same for their crop. The ecosystem services that all of society benefits from are all the additional things farmer A does but does not get paid for. Should farmers who provide ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and flood retention be paid for them?

Ecosystem services include

  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Watersheds - infiltration, flood retention, drought resistance
  • Diversity
  • Habitat and flowers for pollinators
  • Bird and wildlife habitat
  • Human health
  • Food and fibre production

Ecosystem Services Examples

1. When New York City had a problem with water quality rather than spending an estimated $6-8 billion on constructing a water filtration plant, which would require an additional $300 million in annual running costs, they decided to fix the Catskill Watershed where the water came from. By reducing the input of sewage and pesticides in the watershed they were able to get the soil's natural filtration processes up and running again and clean water was delivered downstream, this was all done at the significantly lower cost of $1-1.5 billion. When soils are healthy and rich in organic matter they are able to hold and filter vast quantities of water.

2. The Loess Plateau in China was a terrible degraded area which was becoming a problem for other communities further down the Yellow River due to flooding and sediment. The government saw that the most cost effective solution was to terrace the slopes of the Plateau and revegetate them. Although the main aim was to stabilise the soil and control flooding agriculture in region was regenerated, jobs created and food harvested all of which resulted in a decline in the local poverty rate.

3. Ranchers in the US who have adopted regenerative grazing practices are working together with the Audubon Society to provide habitat for grassland bird species. The farmers ensure that there is always some tall grass for the birds and the Society helps them to market their grass fed beef as being bird friendly.

"If we are going to ask farmers to respect soil and do a few things which may not be of short term economic benefit to them, then the society as a whole has an obligation to compensate them for that.  We are asking farmers to solve the climate change issue for the world. We are asking them to improve the biodiversity for the wellbeing of the planet. We are asking them to improve soil health so that the algal bloom and hypoxia can be less. That's beyond the call of normal duty."  - Dr. Rattan Lal, professor of soil science and director of Ohio State University's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center