Yesterday, researchers at the Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Bali presented on ecosystem services provision to enhance resilience in agricultural landscapes. Interestingly enough, the means by which to maintain this “bundle” of ecosystem services span the actual ecological interactions as well as the multi-stakeholder interchanges and policy environment.
Farmers are the largest group of ecosystem stewards on earth. Their management practices directly influence the sets of ecosystem services generated in agricultural landscapes. Ecosystem services are ecological features that can provide a benefit to humans, but it is not a one way relationship. Management influences the productivity and status of the environment, which feeds back to influence people’s wellbeing. The ecosystem service concept helps articulate this relationship. Ecosystem services are the results of ecological processes and social dynamics, and are in that sense co-constructed.
The role of agriculture in human wellbeing goes beyond crop production. Agricultural landscapes have the simultaneous responsibilities of feeding a global population of 9 billion people, reducing poverty, improving health, and using natural resources sustainably. This requires agricultural landscapes to provide a full “bundle of ecosystem services” that includes, but is not limited to, crop production. To cope with the complexity of this issue we draw on the three core assumptions of resilience thinking and use them as a lens to look at the generation of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes. These core assumptions are that 1) agricultural landscapes are coupled social-ecological systems (SES); 2) they are nested and influenced across scales; 3) and change, rather than stability, is to be expected and is often non-linear.
From this perspective we highlight six key principles that encourage agricultural landscapes to produce and maintain a set of desired ecosystem services. These principles have previously been identified and reviewed in the scientific literature.
- Maintain diversity and redundancy
Diversity and redundancy in agricultural landscapes provide ecological and social options for handling change and disturbances. Species diversity, for example, gives farming practice options, lessens the impact of a given disease or pest outbreak and provides nutritional and health benefits. There are also forms of social diversity and redundancy in the shape of livelihood options, knowledge, actor groups, and institutions. The scale at which diversity and redundancy are most effective, and level of diversity or redundancy that is appropriate to avoid stagnation and inefficiency, is open to debate and almost certainly context dependant.
- Manage connectivity
The structure of an agricultural landscape can facilitate the spread of information, disturbances and recovery strategies. Access to markets, infrastructure, information and community influences farmers’ management decisions. Connectedness affects the spread of disturbances, but also recovery efforts and solutions. Connectedness is a balance between the risk of being overexposed or too isolated; modularity seems to limit the risks of disturbances spreading while maintaining channels for commerce, information and biological sharing.
- Manage key variables and regulating services
These slow variables establish the underlying structure and conditions of the system. Change in them can lead to abrupt changes in the core functions of the system, a regime shift. In agricultural landscapes slow variables such as soil composition, cultural norms, increasing antibiotic/herbicide/pesticide resistance, and farm profitability can change potentially unnoticed, leading to system altering disturbances such as disease epidemics or farm abandonment, for example.
- Encourage learning and experimentation
By expecting change and encouraging learning, it enables adaptation to the evolution and change within a system. Learning and experimentation are critical for altering agricultural systems to produce a range of ecosystem services in addition to food.
- Broaden participation
Having broad range participation increases legitimacy and is a way to facilitate learning. The effectiveness of participation depends on the context, and it is important to be aware of power relationships, levels of trust, and the institutional setting of the agricultural system in focus.
- Promote polycentric governance systems
Polycentric governance is a governing structure that encourages key elements of the other principals listed here. New partnerships are needed to addresses the goals of a healthy agricultural landscape; health, food production, poverty alleviation, sustainability. Bridging organizations across scales are needed in this ever more globalizing world.
Although none of these principles is a complete solution, they are a way to focus our attention. Each one has trade-offs to balance and will inevitably be context dependant, but considering them together is our first attempt to achieve the multi-functionality that we demand from agricultural landscapes. Our next steps will be to test these principles in case studies along with the ecosystem service framework being developed for Water, Land and Ecosystems.
This blog post is based on the forthcoming article, Enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, by Line Gordon, Megan Meacham, Elin Enfors, Fabrice deClerk, Deborah Bossio, Maja Schluter, and Reinette Biggs.