Swinton, S. M., F. Lupi, G. P. Robertson, and D. A. Landis. 2006. Ecosystem services from agriculture: Looking beyond the usual suspects. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 88:1160-1166.
The concept of ecosystem services (ES) provides a transformative lens for thinking about the relation between humankind and nature. The lens is especially revealing when applied to agriculture, the most widespread managed ecosystem on the planet. ES are defined as “the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and the species that make them up, sustain and fulfill human life” (Daily 1997). By focusing on what ecosystems do for humans, the ES concept invites analysis of what humans do to ecosystems and why they do it.
Agriculture (including planted forests) conventionally supplies food, fiber, and fuel “provisioning services” in ES parlance (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Farmers also help to maintain the natural “supporting” ES that make agriculture productive, such as pollination, biological pest regulation, and soil nutrient renewal. In theory, the same managed ecosystems that provide these marketed products could produce other types of ES if suitable incentives existed. The broad class of “regulation ES” covers climate regulation, water purity, surface water flows, groundwater levels, and waste absorption and breakdown. All of these offer benefits that are poorly captured by current markets, yet which managed agricultural and forest ecosystems could potentially provide. The same is true for the provision of habitat for wild species and the cultural, recreational, and informational ES.
In fact, compared to more natural ecosystems, agriculture and forestry have much readier potential to expand their supply of currently nonmarketed ES for three reasons: (1) much is known about biophysical input-output relationships in the system, (2) there exist precedents for economic incentives that could induce greater ES supply, and (3) the past performance of agriculture suggests strong capability to supply goods and services in response to attractive incentives. The rest of this paper expands on these themes by exploring the history of public awareness and reaction to ES linked to agriculture, some precedents for inducing farmers to supply a different product mix, the existing research base on agriculture as viewed from an ES perspective, and research needs in order to augment the provision of currently nonmarketed ES from agricultural lands.
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