Land use and cover changes are highly influenced by the food demands of increasing populations the world over. The continual conversion of land for agricultural use has destroyed or degraded many habitats and poses a threat to biological diversity.1,2 Not only are forests being converted into cropland to meet these demands, causing land degradation and the loss of ecosystem services, but so are orchards. Orchards are intentional plantings of perennial fruit, berry, or nut bearing trees and shrubs maintained for food production. This unique land cover is converted to cropland for several reasons: food security, age, high costs, etc.

As a type of land cover, orchards provide numerous direct and indirect ecosystem goods and services, and studies show they often provide more ecosystem services than cropland.3 For example, in a 25-year period, managed orchards produce more carbon, total nitrogen, and available phosphate than corn and soybean systems. Another group of researchers showed how forestry and orchard habitat supports both biological diversity and timber production more than cropland.4 Evidence from Germany shows that orchards produce more biomass than cropland and further provide erosion protection, drought risk regulation, and flood regulation.5 High recreational and cultural values were also found in Spain.6 Given their importance to many ecosystem services, awareness of their fragility and threatened status should be raised in order to protect these trees and shrubs from being cut unsustainably. Unfortunately, little data exists as to what extent they have already been removed or converted.

So in order to safeguard these unique ecosystems, we should be looking at what could incentivize society to protect them. Losing the many ecosystem services they provide is very costly for society, as low crop yields usually result in production shortages for consumers and income losses for farmers.  Despite significant progress in the area, there are still gaps in analyzing the monetary values of ecosystem service losses for numerous biomes and ecosystems, including orchards. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, which is the largest database of ecosystem valuations from around the world, contains 1,310 cases. However, there is only one example of the total economic value (TEV) of orchards—TEV being the summary of all the values humans derive from natural resources.7

It is essential to put more emphasis on the role of orchards in ecosystems. More research needs to be conducted on the TEV of ecosystem services provided by orchards to fully understand the benefits they offer, as this will provide a better understanding of how to protect them and secure their future sustainability. Currently, there is uncertainty with estimating local TEV for orchards and croplands because of their extensive variety of ecosystem services and lack of existing data to calculate the different values from. To begin addressing this gap, we undertook a case study on southern Russian orchards. It provides an example of how TEVs can be used as a starting step to understanding the value of orchards and protecting otherwise threatened landscapes.

An apple orchard in Massachusetts.

Over the period from 2000 to 2010 in the Azov district of the Rostov region, 3,000 hectares of orchards were transformed into cropland, causing much land degradation. There were three main reasons for the conversion: 1) some of the trees were older and no longer fruiting; 2) cropland has shorter investment cycles and during that time, wheat and sunflower crops were more profitable than fruits; and 3) there was national demand in Russia to fulfill a need for grain and sunflower and stabilize food security after the economic collapse of the 1990s.

Removing the orchards increased the overall cropland area by only 3,000 ha, to 210,000 ha. As a result of this land use and cover change, the amount of phosphorous and humus in the soil declined, and other ecosystem services, such as fruit production, soil formation, and water balance were also lost. Only one ecosystem service—potassium content—increased under the conversion of cropland as a consequence of particular fertilizer application.

We thus set out to calculate what comparative market prices of orchards and cropland yields were over a 20-year period to provide incentives from both economic and ecological points of view to restore the orchards. To achieve this, the cost of action versus cost of inaction method proposed by Joachim von Braun and Ephraim Nkonya was applied.8,9 This method uses data on prices and costs to compare possible outcomes of different scenarios, ranging from leaving the current land use as is to investing in sustainable land management. This tool often shows that sustainable land management is much more effective from both ecological and economic points of view, and this is what we expected in these Russian orchards.

The absence of ecosystem value data in Russia, and particularly the Azov district gave us an incentive to calculate several versions of TEV, each with justification. To accomplish this, we took one ecosystem service with a market price, which in this case was food production. We then multiplied this price by so-called coefficients of importance for other ecosystem services (in research literature, this is sometimes called the basic transfer approach). As what actual land use changes will be in the future is unclear, we calculated the TEV for three probable scenarios with different types and quantities of ecosystem services. We used multiple scenarios as their differences would result in comparable estimates of TEV and provide a range of understanding. As we don’t know what ecosystem services will be used in the future, multiple TEVs can show the potential outcomes of different land management decisions and guide us towards an optimal and sustainable management strategy.

The first scenario had valued one ecosystem service—food production—and in it orchards were actually more valuable than cropland. Orchards were valued at USD$842 per hectare compared to $550 per hectare for cropland. In the second scenario we valued nine types of ecosystem services: food production, raw materials, water regulation, increased air quality through the capturing of fine dust, climate regulation, maintenance of soil structure, water purification, biodiversity protection, and recreation services. The coefficients here were based on a survey where 200 ecologists were interviewed on the value of ecosystem services of different land types in China.10,11 We thought it was acceptable to transfer these values in our case, because Chinese orchards produce a lot of pome fruits, as do the Russian ones. Finally the third scenario was based on a survey in Russia that involved 20 scientists and a large array of ecosystem services: carbon sequestration, climate regulation, water regulation, disturbance regulation, water supply, erosion control, nutrient cycling, maintenance of habitat for resident and transient populations, genetic resources, biological control, pollination, waste treatment, food production, raw materials and feed production, cultural functions, and recreational functions.

The results in Table 1 show that TEV for cropland in the three scenarios ranges from USD$550 to $3,803 (2010) per hectare. On the other hand, the TEV for orchards ranged from USD$842 to $8,004 (2010) per hectare. Based on this, we can see in all scenarios that orchards are more highly valued than cropland.

The next step was to use these TEV estimates to calculate the costs of either taking action or not taking action against land degradation. This will help determine the value from ecological and economical points of view of regrowing orchards. In all scenarios, there was a fairly high cost of action, due to the establishment and maintenance costs for sustainable land management in orchards. The cost of action was estimated using establishment price of orchards at USD$983 per hectare and maintenance at $871 per hectare, which are values based on studies of Russian scientists already working in this region.

In the first and third scenarios, orchards were valued 1.53 and 1.19 times higher than cropland, respectively. However, in both cases this value is not enough to be an incentive for farmers to plant orchards, because the cost of taking action is higher than the cost of inaction in a 20 year period. In the first scenario, every dollar invested in the orchards would only bring back USD$0.2, and in the third scenario it was only $0.1.

Our results show that cost of action in all three scenarios is higher than costs of inaction, largely because establishment and maintenance costs were high. Only in the second scenario is the cost of inaction/action ratio close to 1, at USD$0.9. To incentivize society to replant these orchards, the ratio will need to be bigger than 1, which means lowering establishment and maintenance costs or increasing our understanding of the full value of orchards.

Based on our research, we are suggesting that orchard restoration is both economically and environmentally optimal. It does not need to affect crop production outputs, as there is high potential to increase yield for agricultural producers in the region, up to 40 to 50 percent according to some estimates,12 and simply requires increased inputs such as fertilizers, irrigation, and/or seeds of better quality. The conversion of 3,000 hectares could be easily compensated by a slight yield increase of seven percent on the remaining 207,000 hectares in the Azov district.

This range of TEV for potential future land uses can be used to justify new policy actions in the Azov region. As orchards are clearly more valuable than croplands, but have high start-up and on-going costs, the government could subsidize farmers to motivate replanting. Based on the outcome of our studies on these orchards, our solutions for orchard management and protection in this region of southern Russia are thus a mixture of analytical, research, and practical recommendations:

  • First, not to further cut down existing orchards. They are unique biomes and provide several ecosystem services that although not always yet clear, serve many functions in nature and provide value to humans. Further, our TEV shows that their restoration costs are currently too high, although their land value is higher than cropland. Thus, it makes sense to maintain all orchards that currently exist, in order to reap their benefits.
  • To re-establish orchards in the region, we need to further define these ecosystem services and their values. This will require research work in different fields like soil and biological sciences as well as ecological and economic studies. Economically, we must not only estimate the value of the provisional services of orchards that are on the market, but other ecosystem services too—such as regulating, supporting, and cultural services.
  • The TEV method, along with cost–benefit analyses, may not always show the efficiency or profitability of sustainable land management methods if the full data is not available, as in our situation. However, this doesn’t mean that orchards shouldn’t be protected; we should make additional efforts to research and undertake novel estimates to grasp the essence and significance of these orchards (and other threatened biomes). Bolstered with further data, the range of TEVs we have already established here can help stakeholders and policymakers eventually understand the benefits of restoration.

Two practical and immediately implementable solutions are to:

  • Have policy-makers increase subsidies for replanting orchards, as establishment costs and maintenance costs are high, and farmers struggle independently to manage them sustainably.
  • Spread information about existing orchards and their many ecosystem services—which we are just beginning to understand—so that everyone can understand their significance.

Understanding the difference in costs and benefits between taking action and not taking action is a powerful tool that can protect threatened landscapes and establish sustainable land management practices. Here, in the case of the diminishing orchards of southern Russia, we can see that orchards are ultimately more valuable than the cropland that is replacing them, but the cost of re-establishing and maintaining them is too high for farmers. Gaining more knowledge can thus help governments set policies that protect this unique ecosystem from further degradation and even re-establish them so that their benefits can be sustainably reaped.


This article was prepared while working on a project, “Assessing Land Degradation in Eurasia,” at Lomonosov Moscow State University (Moscow, Russia) with financial assistance from the Russian Science Foundation, grant No. 14-38-00023.


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Anton Strokov

Anton received his Ph.D. at the Russian Institute of Agrarian Problems and Informatics, where he researched development issues in the potato and vegetable sectors. There he also participated in several...

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