What Has Nature Done for You Lately? More than You Might Think!

The last time I wrote, I introduced the concept Ecosystem Services, which means the multitude of resources and processes supplied by ecosystems to our benefit. Ecosystem services are divided into four large categories: provisioning, regulating, habitat or supporting, and cultural.

Collectively, they can be thought of as humanity’s life-support system. Some ecosystem services are described briefly below. How many of them can be found on or near your farm or home?

Provisioning Services describe the material or energy outputs of ecosystems:

  • Food - Freshwater and marine products, the often-overlooked forest foods, and of course, agro-ecosystems.
  • Raw materials - Plant fibers-cotton, linen, etc; biofuels-plant oils, lumber are included in this category.
  • Medicines - Provided for direct use, or as raw material for the pharmaceutical industry. Purple coneflower and foxglove are more than just pretty.
  • Fresh water - Excess nitrates in well water? Bacteria in wetland habitats is able to convert nitrate into atmospheric nitrogen, which is not an aquatic pollutant.

Regulating Services include many things, such as:

  • Local climate and air quality - Trees shade your house, forests influence rainfall and water availability, plants remove air pollutants, just to name a few. 
  • Carbon sequestration & storage - Plants remove atmospheric carbon and store it in tissues, and oceans – our largest carbon sinks – absorb carbon through a process called “air-sea gas exchange.” 
  • Moderation of extreme events - Wetlands soak up flood waters, and coastal buffers like mangroves and coral reefs protect from storm damage. 
  • Waste water treatment - Microorganisms in wetlands eliminate pathogens and reduce levels of pollution. 
  • Erosion prevention & maintenance of soil fertility - Vegetation keeps our soil intact, and a variety of life-forms and ecosystem functions – such as decomposition and flooding – maintain its fertility. 
  • Pollination - Through wind and insects – and some birds and bats – we are provided with fruits, vegetables, and seeds.
  • Biological control - Ecosystems regulate pests and impede vector-borne disease through activities of predators and parasites. Fungus, birds, bats, flies, wasps, and frogs are some of our most helpful natural controls. 

Habitat or Supporting Services comprises:

  • Habitats for species - Habitats provide the food, water, and shelter that species need to survive. Every ecosystem provides different habitats essential for various species’ life cycles. Migratory species (birds, fish, insects, mammals) are all dependent upon different ecosystems along the course of their migration. 
  • Maintenance of Genetic Diversity - How genetically diverse a species is within and between populations is important. Locally adapted breeds or races are able to withstand local climate hardships, and genetically diverse groups can bet¬ter withstand disease outbreaks. 

Cultural services are where we get away from the ‘mechanical’ side of things. This category comprises:

  • Recreational and mental & physical health - How many of you like to play sports or go for walks outside? 
  • Tourism - When we go hiking, bird-watching, kayaking, and so on amongst natural areas we contribute to local economies. 
  • Aesthetic appreciation & inspiration for culture, art & design - The natural environment has informed our language and is a constant inspiration. Floral and foliage motifs on our fabrics and wallpaper, and sports team mascots are an everyday illustration of this fact. But, sciences too are inspired by nature. Have you ever heard of biomimetics? This is when engineering takes design inspiration from the natural environment, such as using shark skin to inspire swimwear fabric design and boat hull surfacing. 
  • Spiritual experience & sense of place - Around the world we find sacred spaces – forests, caves, mountains, etc. – and nature as a common element in all major religions, as well as local customs. 

On your farm or in your small town what are the services you experience? Which have decreased, and which have increased? Please write to me and tell me about which services you are most aware of, and which ones are new and surprising. I would love to hear from you! Email adelep@cfra.org.

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The term “Ecosystem Services” became more broadly used after the publishing of a UN report, The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which compiled global biological data and sought to determine the status and trends of ecosystems around the earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, the assessment concluded that we are having a significant and increasing impact on the biodiversity of our ecosystems, and in turn reducing their resilience and biocapacity. Learn more about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment here.