August 28, 2013

A Bundle of Ecosystem Services: Principles for Resilience in Agricultural Landscapes

By Megan Meacham, Stockholm Resilience Center and Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Stockholm

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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


  • T. M. Bass
    October 15, 2013 at 11:12am

    The referenced bibliography link, “These principles have previously been identified and reviewed in the scientific literature” reveals an error to me (404 page not found). I am very interested in the foundational papers defining and defending the 6 principles, that you attempt to cite. Please consider correcting this link. This is an interesting and inspiring discussion.

    With regards,
    T. M. Bass
    Montana State University, USA

    • Rachel Friedman
      October 15, 2013 at 5:18pm

      Should be all fixed now. The news story was deleted, so the link now goes to the paper abstract.

  • Jordi Pietx Colom
    September 12, 2013 at 6:40am

    A clear and neat identification of principles. I work in promoting principles 5 and 6 and we have recently published the first manual on the subject in Europe: “Caring together for nature. Manual on land stewardship as a tool to promote social involvement with the natural environment in Europe”, through a partnership of organisations and with support of the European Comission of the EU (LIFE 10/INF/ES/540).

    The manual is available in pdf (25Mb) at:

    Good work in agricultural ecosystem resilience & conservation to all!

  • Ed George
    September 6, 2013 at 1:32pm

    Nebrsska,USA is an agricultural state with tremendous diversity of precipitation, soils and farming/ranching systems. Youth are exposed to agriculture through FFA, also know as Future Farmers of America. With a $200,000 grant from Nebraska Environmental Trust, 147 Ag Educators and 6,000 Ag Ed students now have a strong background about soil health. University of Nebraska Extension and USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service staff assisted by providing inservice teacher-teach-the-teacher training for using a soil testing kit. The kit has nutrient testing stripes, soil probes, measuring wheel, soil compaction test, organic matter determination, and meters for soil assessments. Youth now have skills to address agronomic practices, natural resource management, envirothon evaluations and skills to evaluate local soil quality. Curriculum and lesson plans enabled teachers to incorporate the materials in their classroom, laboratories and field projects. Would love to share more information and inquires by contacting

  • tmgieseke
    September 6, 2013 at 8:47am

    Megan – I think the six principles will point us in the right direction. I have wrestled with polycentric governance systems and created a “Governance Compass” that you might find helpful:

  • Abu Zubair
    August 29, 2013 at 12:21am

    Theoretically I think the assumption is OK and there may be some debates regarding principles. However, reality perhaps often different. We all know genetic diversity and agronomic manipulation is one of the key answer to resilience . However, commercial agriculture promotes mono-cropping as it helps them to economize investment such as irrigating same time, tillage and seeding with same machine. On the contrary subsistence farmers maintain diversity as per eco-system as they they want to produce everything they need from their land-as they have no cash. Moreover, in coastal best due to recurrent climate change farmers don’t want to invest for high value crop but it could has the potentiality which could markedly change their income and livelihoods in a sustainable way. There are may reasons behind it. It need through and in-depth observation and research. I like to do that if some organization come forward with funding to do joint work with me in the coastal belt of Bangladesh which is the most vulnerable parts of the world affected by climate change.Yes probably adaptability and change may have some good effect for finding a resilient cropping systems for a specific area.

    Thanks and regards,
    Dr Md. Yusuf Ali

  • Linked from A bundle of services is key to resilience / Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog   August 29 9:45pm

    […] Agricultural development cannot ignore the important ecosystem services that agricultural landscapes provide.  Farmers play a key role in this process as stewards of ecosystem services. The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems is taking an ecosystem services approach to better utilize the relationship between humans and agriculture to achieve sustainable food security.  Please read more about the program’s Ecosystem Services and Resilience Framework and partner contributions to our resilience work. […]