Opinion | Ecosystem goods and services

Canola fields.
Canola fields.

A recent trip out west through the canola fields of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area reminded me of the flat and vast prairie lands of the US and Canada, where corn, wheat and barley stretch to the horizon. The global footprint of food production is indeed growing, and necessarily so as the population rises. However, a land dominated by these agroecosystems made up of monocultures of one plant species are also associated with loss of biodiversity, loss of native habitat, degradation of air, water and soil quality and often a decline in rural communities.

Ecosystem refers to the complex interactions among living and non-living components of the environment. To understand the ecosystem better, we have devised the concept of what service does that ecosystem provide to humans, both living in it and not living in it but benefiting or suffering from it. Thus, ecosystem services are the benefits to humans from nature. Ecosystem services are often overlooked in decision-making because decision-makers lack information about them and have not attached an economic value to them.

In 2007 in the US Midwest, where a quarter of the world’s corn and soybean are grown, a study was set up to determine the effects of integrating strips of native vegetation within the row-crop agricultural fields. Such prairie strips are a new conservation technology and the results of this 10-year study have shown that they led to raised pollinator and bird abundance, decreased water runoff, and increased soil and nutrient retention. These benefits accrued at levels disproportionately greater than the land area occupied by the prairie strips. Social surveys showed that both farm and non-farm populations appreciated the ecosystem services these native vegetation strips generated.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment at the University of Newcastle