Food as a service from nature

Nature enables people to produce food. In addition to food, ecosystems provide us with many other ‘services’ such as fresh water and clean air. These are known as ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services are interconnected. An emphasis on food production can come at the expense of another service. The proper functioning of the entire ecosystem is important for food production. By bringing the food supply in balance with other ecosystem services, we can help enhance the overall sustainability of the system. Food supply in the ecosystem service approach is a provisioning service, as are fresh water and clean air. Other ecosystem services are needed to ensure the delivery of these essential products in a sustainable way. Supporting services such as soil formation, nutrient cycling and the pollination of crops; regulating services such as the regulation of air & water quality and pest & climate control; and cultural services such as the development and exchange of seeds, varieties and breeds, food cultures and spiritual values that express connectedness with the land.

Maximising the utilisation of an area for food production often goes at the expense of biodiversity
Zona da Mata, Minas Gerails in Brazil. One of the landscapes in the study of different combinations of perservation and utilisation.
Zona da Mata, Minas Gerails in Brazil. One of the landscapes in the study of different combinations of perservation and utilisation.
Intensive agriculture with border strip sown to a mix of flowers to sttract pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests
Intensive agriculture with border strip sown to a mix of flowers to sttract pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests

Land sparing

A prevailing view is that concentrating food production on the most fertile lands is a winning strategy, whereby focusing the highest possible production in a limited area would coincide with nature preservation elsewhere – so-called land sparing. To optimally use an area for food production, however, we must also treat other ecosystem services with respect. These services can be overloaded or damaged – they sometimes already are – if increasing food production is the main focus. Maximising the utilisation of an area for food production often goes at the expense of biodiversity, sometimes causes water scarcity or floods, and can leave the pollination of crops at risk.

Conversely, if we consider biodiversity and the protection of existing ecosystems as an absolute aim, food production can be endangered. Both forms of specialisation then lead to suboptimal situations. For sustainable food production, we must recognise the tradeoffs between services and seek synergies among the wide range of ecosystem services. As part of a global consortium, Lijbert Brussaard, professor of soil biology and biological soil quality has investigated the effect of different combinations of preservation  and utilisation (land sharing).

The scientists looked  at eight different landscapes featuring different types  of agricultural production. The study shows that some areas have a relatively high natural quality and  marginal food production, whereas others allow high food production with a limited ecological quality.  Some areas are a problem because they score low  on both scales (under the orange line in the figure) The scientific challenge is to achieve ecological intensification (along the green line in the figure) where areas score as highly as possible on both scales. Developing new and existing agricultural systems in these areas requires much more knowledge about  the structure and functioning of natural systems than earlier such initiatives.

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Blending ecosystems?

Ecological intensification does not mean a total blending of natural ecosystems and food production. Protected areas remain essential for the preservation of the majority of organisms on the planet, and introducing production systems which would threaten other ecosystem services must be avoided there. Ecological intensification is a particularly interesting challenge in areas where biodiversity and ecosystem services are degraded.

The potential scale of land sharing is highly dependent on the local situation and the input of the stakeholders. Scientifically, we look for those combinations of eco system services which offer optimal yield. Armed with this knowledge, and based on their cultural background, local stakeholders can choose their own preferred combination and find a smart way to produce sufficient healthy food in a sustainable manner.

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