How Valuing Nature Can Transform Agriculture

This article appearing in the January 2012 edition of the journal Solutions, makes an important economic argument for the transformation of agricultural practices. It also calls for the re-visioning of land investment strategies and subsidies to include payment for ecosystem services [PES]. While the article uses grazing as an example, its general premise can extend to perennial polyculture cropping systems as well as land enhancements that yield nutrient dense staple crops, greatly expanding the definition of prime agricultural land. Given the record high prices currently being paid for conventional ag land, the time for new strategies could not be more appropriate to protect long-term investments in this valuable asset class.

From the article summary:

Society must increase food production and restore vital ecosystem services or suffer unacceptable consequences. Unfortunately, conventional agriculture may be the single greatest threat to ecosystem function. At the same time, reducing ecologically harmful agricultural inputs or restoring farmlands to native ecosystems threatens food production. We fell into this predicament because we designed agricultural and economic systems that failed to account for ecosystem services, and the path forward requires redesigning both systems. Agroecology—which applies ecological principles to design sustainable farming methods that can increase food production, wean us away from nonrenewable and harmful agricultural inputs, and restore ecosystem services—promises to be an appropriate redesign of agricultural systems. We focus on the example of management-intensive grazing (MIG), which mimics natural grassland-grazer dynamics. Compared to conventional systems, MIG increases pasture growth and cattle production, reduces the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and enhances biodiversity, water quality, nutrient capture, and carbon sequestration. Redesigning economic institutions to reward the provision of ecosystem services and provide the public goods required for the global-scale development and dissemination of agroecology practices still presents a serious challenge. Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are a promising mechanism through which those who benefit from ecosystem services can compensate those who provide them, for mutual gain. Numerous schemes already exist that pay landowners for land uses that sequester carbon, regulate and purify water, and enhance biodiversity, but their effectiveness is debated. We propose a form of PES in which the potential public beneficiaries of ecosystem services at the local, national, and global scales fund the research and development, extension work (i.e., farmer education, usually supported by government agencies), and affordable credit required to scale agroecology up to the level required to provide for a growing global population. [The Solutions Journal, Volume 2, Issue 6, Page 64-73, January 2012 Authors Joshua Farley, Abdon Schmitt, Juan Alves, Norton Rieiro de Freitas Jr.]

Also from the article:

Dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and phosphorous coupled with excessive waste emissions mean we cannot rely indefinitely on nonrenewable inputs to increase food production. In 1940, U.S. food systems converted 1 calorie of energy inputs into 2.3 calories of food on the table, while today they convert some 7.3 calories of fossil fuel inputs into 1 calorie of food.16 In a reversal of the previous dynamic, efforts to substitute food crops (as biofuels) for fossil fuels now threaten food supplies. The next round of productivity increases in agriculture will have to rely much more extensively on nature’s rapidly diminishing renewable services.17 [The Solutions Journal, Volume 2, Issue 6, Page 64-73, January 2012]

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