Ecosystem Services and Agricultural Lands

On November 12th, I attended a talk by Dr. Line Gordon of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. She talked a little about a number of topics including resilience, the Earth’s water balance, the effects of agriculture on global water vapor flows, and the types of ecosystem services fulfilled by agricultural (domesticated) lands. The last topic in this list is the focus of this post.

The idea that domesticated lands can fulfill a number of ecosystem services intrigues me for a number of reasons. First, as Gordon notes on her blog, ecosystem services that are usually associated with forest ecosystems such as carbon sequestration, erosion control and evapotranspiration, can be fulfilled by properly managed domesticated lands. The idea here is that domesticated lands (such as pastures, croplands etc.) can be managed in such a way that vital services are rendered available. This idea leads to my second point of intrigue.

As the human population continues to increase, so too will its food demands. To meet these demands a number of ecosystems will have to be domesticated (e.g. as forests are razed and replaced by croplands). One can easily foresee in the near future a number of conflicts will arise between conservationists and preservationists seeking to protect ‘pristine’ ecosystems and those responsible for securing food for the world’s growing numbers. In all likelihood, the needs of the hungry will trump the goals of the environmentalist. If, however, the newly domesticated lands are correctly managed, then valuable ecosystem services can be retained. There is ample room for both sides to achieve its goals.

To me, there is little doubt that an increasing percentage of the Earth’s land will be domesticated in the years ahead. This increase in domestic lands will come at the expense of a number of terrestrial ecosystems. If we can manage the newly domesticated lands so that they replace the services lost during domestication (carbon sequestration, erosion control etc.), then one of the most important aspects of ‘natural’ ecosystems will not be lost at all.

Though I desire a world where these concepts would not be needed, and where ecosystems would not be under constant threat of domestication, reality demands a number of compromises and trade-offs. As conflicts between environmentalists and those responsible for food security increase, knowing where we can compromise and where we cannot is essential. Thus, more research should focus on the types of services that can and that cannot be fulfilled by domesticated lands, and how best to manage and design these lands to carry out those services.

2 Responses to “Ecosystem Services and Agricultural Lands”

  1. parasite kid says:

    While I agree that we will not be able to stop land domestication in its tracks, I wonder whether playing the “cost/benefit” game with nature is really the best path forward. Of course it speaks to the current culture of consumption, but isn’t it also serving to reinforce the idea that the value of the environment is in its worth to humans? Perhaps this can lessen the impact of our growing numbers but if all environmental movements head this direction I am afraid that the shift in mentality that is necessary for real change won’t happen.

    In relation to food security…What about reducing the waste associated with our current agricultural production? What about creating a more effective distribution system? How much of an impact could this make on improving food security?

  2. Jones says:

    In this post I tried to take a realistic outlook on current and projected land-use patterns. I too wish for a number of changes that would lead to more sustainable, less-consumptive practices. Current projections, however, place the human population around 9 billion in the next few decades, and indicate that a number of developing nations are on the cusp of being fully developed, with all the cars and toys that we enjoy. With the rise in biofuels, also, intense competition is going to occur over current, and potential, agricultural land. To cut our losses and compromise might be the most rational path forward. It might prove quite prudent to manage lands to provide a host of ecosystem services.
    Regarding Parasite Kid’s recommendations, I agree that these measures should, and probably will be implemented in the near future, but only when it becomes economically beneficial for stakeholders to do so. Traditionally, producers have been able to afford to waste, but as population pressures increase along with competition for productive land, waste will no longer be an option. It will soon be in producers’ economic interests to be sustainable.