Although global policies to reduce poverty, ensure food security, and improve environmental protection are in place, a new paradigm shift is required to fast-track sustainable development.1 This requires a new vision in global efforts and contributions by all sectors of the global economy, including agriculture.2 The agricultural sector supports 45 percent of the global population as farmers, laborers, and agribusiness organizations and also contributes to the above global goals through the provision of ecosystem goods and services (ES) and by improving natural capital.3,4 It contributes on average approximately six percent to the global gross domestic product (GDP), ranging from only one percent in advanced economies to 40 percent in the least developed ones.5 Agriculture occupies approximately 38 percent of the global land area and houses the largest managed ecosystems on Earth.6

One way that agriculture can contribute to the global agenda of sustainable development is mainstreaming ES into current and future farming systems.7,8 This will ensure employment for large populations, improve food security, and deliver multifunctional landscapes benefitting not only farm communities but also society at large. Here, we propose that such a goal comprise sustainable intensification through the development of ES-providing and enhancing practices as part of modified farming systems.9,10 It will require payment mechanisms and market-based instruments to support the adoption of these ES-enhancing protocols.11 The latter need to be presented to farmers and advisors in a form that facilitates uptake.

Farmland Ecosystem Services and Productivity

Ecosystem services on farmland need to be enhanced as part of global food policy as increasingly dysfunctional biomes and ecosystems are appearing. Moreover, the agriculture, which largely created the problem, has become more intensive in terms of its enhanced use of nonrenewable resources, driven by consumption patterns of a world population likely to reach nine billion people by 2050.12 Therefore, the need for enhanced biodiversity-driven ES in global agriculture is urgent.

Here, we show how simple agroecological approaches can be used to demonstrate that ES can benefit modern farming and be adopted to improve productivity. These involve agroecological experiments to measure ecosystem functions combined with value transfer techniques to calculate their economic value. These studies demonstrate that some current farming practices have much higher ES values than suggested in previous work.13 For example, recent data show that the combined value of only two ES—nitrogen mineralization and biological control of a single pest by one guild of invertebrate predators—can have values of USD$197, $271, and $301 per hectare per year in terms of avoided costs for conventional,7 organic,14 and integrated (e.g. combining food and energy production, or CFE) arable farming systems,15 respectively. Conventional farming systems depend on high rates of synthetic inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers, to control pests, maintain soil fertility along with improved seed, heavy machinery, and irrigation to produce maximum outputs per hectare.8 Organic agriculture is a production system that virtually excludes synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It emphasizes on building up the soil with composts and green manures, managing pests using natural pest control and crop rotations.8 The CFE system is a production system which is a net energy producer and is managed organically. 15 It produces more energy in the form of renewable biomass than consumed in the planting, growing, and harvesting of the food and fodder. The bioenergy component is represented by belts of fast-growing trees (willows, alder, and hazel) that are planted orthogonally to fields that contain cereal and pasture crops. The total value of these two ES to global agriculture, if used on only 10 percent of total area, exceeds the combined cost of pesticides and fertilizers.8 The above values comprise reduced variable costs (labor, fuel, and pesticides) and lower external costs to human health and the environment. Although paying for these variable costs does contribute to GDP, it is a poor indicator of sustainability and of human well-being.16 Instead, the expenditure on cleaning up those externalities should be subtracted from the GDP.

Vineyard with flowering buckwheat between vine rows at a winery in New Zealand.
Vineyard with flowering buckwheat between vine rows at a winery in New Zealand. Credit: Jean-Luc Dufour, Accolade Wines

Vineyard management practices, such as growing strips of flowering buckwheat between vine rows, decrease the mean number of leafroller (Epiphyas postvittana) caterpillars in grape bunches in New Zealand. These practices help to keep the caterpillars below the economic threshold for managing them with pesticides. The strips of flowering buckwheat provide nectar for parasitoid wasps that attack grape-feeding caterpillars, which in turn leads to the pest population being brought below the economic threshold. A service providing unit (SPU; see text) has been developed for easy uptake of this protocol.

We think that a better understanding of ecological processes and their economic contribution in agroecosystems can help develop protocols, which do not require major farming system changes, but enhance ES by returning selective functional agricultural biodiversity to agriculture.17 Functional agricultural biodiversity is defined as the biodiversity in and around agricultural landscapes that enhances ES and thereby benefits food production. In addition, it can facilitate sustainable intensification and have positive spin-offs for the society.9,10 For example, nutrient cycling, including the role of leguminous crops in nitrogen fixation, is a well-known enhancement of farmland ES and can have a value of USD$1200 per hectare per year.18,19 More recent ES improvements are illustrated by agroecological research on biological control of insect pests. In New Zealand and Australia, strips of flowering buckwheat Fagopyrum esculentum (Moench) between vine rows provide nectar and other nutrients in an otherwise virtual monoculture, and thereby improve the ecological fitness and efficacy of parasitoid wasps that attack grape-feeding caterpillars (see box). This in turn leads to the pest population being brought below the economic threshold. An investment of USD$3 per hectare per year in buckwheat seed and minimal sowing costs have been shown to lead to savings in variable costs of USD$200 per hectare per year, fewer pesticide residues,20 and can aid the conservation of endemic butterfly species.21 Such protocols have been taken up by grape growers in New Zealand, as in the above case.20 However, for rapid adoption and uptake, further research is required to understand the full costs and benefits of such protocols for different farming systems.8,9,10

A CFE system showing shelterbelts. Credit: Hanne Lipczak Jakobsen, Copenhagen Universit
A CFE system showing shelterbelts. Credit: Hanne Lipczak Jakobsen, Copenhagen Universit

There are other examples of protocols not requiring a major farming system change. With biological control of weeds in Australia, returns on investment of up to 300:1 have been achieved following the introduction of appropriately selective biodiversity in the form of insects for weed biological control.22 In Africa, the development of ‘push-pull’ eco-technologies, whereby plant and insect chemistry is used to deter pests (‘push’) and attract pests’ natural enemies (‘pull’), has improved yields to such an extent that milk production has increased and benefits have been community-wide.23 Fungicide use in vines can also be avoided if such eco-technologies are deployed. The life cycle of botrytis (Botrytis cinerea) disease on grapes can be disrupted by the appropriate use of mulches below vines. The resulting enhanced ES in this case can save USD$570 per hectare per year in fungicide and associated costs.24

Scalability of Future Farming

Although the eco-technologies now exist to improve farming sustainability when the negative consequences of a continued reliance of oil-based inputs are well recognized,17,25 farmers are commonly risk-averse.26 In industrialized countries, they have tended to reject the notion that noncrop biodiversity on their land can improve production and/or minimize costs. However, farmers in many developing countries tend to agree and utilize this farm biodiversity.9 The challenge now for agroecologists and policymakers is to use a range of market-based instruments or incentives, government interventions, and enhanced social learning among growers to accelerate the deployment of sound, biodiversity-based ES-enhancement protocols for farmers.26 These protocols need to be framed in the form of service-providing units,11 which precisely explain the necessary ES-enhancement procedures and should ideally include cost–benefit analyses. Such a requirement invites the design of new systems of primary production that are species-diverse, have low inputs, and provide a diverse suite of ES including a positive net carbon sequestration.

Proportion of four different categories of ecosystem services provided by organic fields, conventional fields, and combined food and energy systems (CFE).7,15 Food and fodder production is included in provisioning services. Organic and conventional fields produce comparable provisioning services at the expense of regulating services and cultural services. However, CFE systems are able to balance food production and bio-energy production with minimizing impacts on regulating services and cultural services. Supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, and biological control of insect pests, which are necessary for the production of provisioning services, are also higher in CFE systems. Credit: Harpinder Sandhu
Proportion of four different categories of ecosystem services provided by organic fields, conventional fields, and combined food and energy systems (CFE).7,15 Food and fodder production is included in provisioning services. Organic and conventional fields produce comparable provisioning services at the expense of regulating services and cultural services. However, CFE systems are able to balance food production and bio-energy production with minimizing impacts on regulating services and cultural services. Supporting services, such as nutrient cycling, pollination, and biological control of insect pests, which are necessary for the production of provisioning services, are also higher in CFE systems. Credit: Harpinder Sandhu

A comparison of the economic values of ES associated with farming in organic, conventional, and a combined food and energy system indicate that well-designed agricultural systems have the potential to produce multiple ES in addition to food and fodder (see Figure 1).7,15 Any potential loss in farm income under these systems can be compensated with sound market mechanisms, such as payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes and tax deductions.23 In this approach, those that benefit from the provision of ES make payments to those that supply them, thereby maintaining ES. Examples of informal functioning PES schemes in different areas of the world are summarized in Table 1. The current focus of these schemes is on water, carbon, and biodiversity in addressing environmental problems through positive incentives to land managers.25 Such schemes not only help to improve the environment and human well-being but also ensure food security and long-term farm sustainability.2 For example, beetle banks on arable land in the European Union deliver vertebrate conservation ES, which builds on the original pest-management intention of these banks.27

The Way Forward

The extensive Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) of global ecosystems provided a framework for analyzing socio-ecological processes and suggested that agriculture may be the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.”28 The MEA raised awareness of ecosystems and their services, but the global environment continues to degrade because of a lack of any coherent plan of action. Recently, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to translate ecosystem science into action and to track the drivers and consequences of ecosystem change worldwide.29 This action plan is focused on strengthening assessment, relevant policy, and associated science at spatial and temporal scales. The United Nations has recently set up the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to increase food production and to achieve food security and poverty alleviation by 2030, among other development goals.30 However, growing sufficient and nutritious food for nine billion plus people worldwide by 2050 will need greater coherence in global efforts, partnerships with developed and developing countries, and careful planning and implementation of the required programs with science and policy collaboration. It also requires assessment and valuation of ES in agriculture to understand inter-dependencies and trade-offs between production and the environment, as advocated by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food, a project of the United Nations Environment Program.31 Achievement of human well-being as agreed by the SDGs is not possible without clear pathways for the design of future agroecosystems and new agricultural policies. Efforts to intensify agriculture since the 1960s partly succeeded due to technology transfer to farmers and support of and financial investments in agricultural research, extension networks, and governments at regional and national levels. Here, we provide some recommendations to the agricultural science, farming, and policy communities, which might be useful in shaping global agricultural goals by utilizing biodiversity and ES to increase productivity, protect the environment, and contribute to human well-being:

  • Global agriculture needs to embrace and implement the value of biodiversity and ES into farming. This requires designing farming systems that can use ES through sustainable intensification, reduce or eliminate fossil fuel-based inputs to increase productivity, and enhance efficiencies of other inputs, such as water and nutrients.
  • Agroecology has potential to enhance productivity and farm sustainability through adoption of ES. Agricultural research should focus more on developing and refining agroecological techniques to enhance farmland ES, such as natural pest control, managing habitat for wild pollinators, increasing soil organic matter, and improving nutrient cycling, so that they can be integrated into the current farming systems. These techniques can also help improve vital natural capital in agriculture.
  • Social capital in agriculture that includes contributions from farmers and farming families should be acknowledged and rewarded by recognizing their value in achieving the SDGs. This can help future-proof farming and the livelihoods of millions of farmers.

    A conventional wheat field. Credit: Harpinder Sandhu
    A conventional wheat field. Credit: Harpinder Sandhu
  • The livelihood of farming communities should be protected by agricultural policy while developing long-term strategies for sustainable intensification.
  • Country level and global studies are required to estimate the value of all environmental benefits and costs of current and alternative agricultural systems. This economic valuation will provide policy makers with a tool that can guide policy development to incentivize ES-enhancing agricultural practices and to penalize detrimental practices.
  • Current agricultural systems can be diverted toward sustainable intensification by governments developing and adopting appropriate policy responses at regional and national levels, matched by financial investments.
  • Various UN efforts in tackling climate change and protecting biodiversity and ES should focus on the agriculture sector for positive spin-offs for the environment, economy, and society.32


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Harpinder Sandhu

Harpinder Sandhu obtained a PhD in Agroecology from Lincoln University New Zealand. His research involves integration of environmental economics and ecology for understanding of the complex socio-ecological...


Robert Costanza

Robert Costanza is Chair of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He has authored or coauthored over 350 scientific papers, and reports on his work have...

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