Can innovative approaches to knowledge transfer strengthen both the supply of and demand for ecosystem services on agricultural lands?

In mature sectors such as agriculture, visionary efforts and dialogues around ecosystem services are springing up around the world.  For instance, many are experimenting with ways to disconnect production from consuming ever more arable land; others are working to reduce pre- and post-harvest waste. Some are using mobile technology to disseminate best farming practices to smallholder farmers in developing countries; others have found innovative ways to connect verifiable changes in water usage or farming practices to new sources of revenue.  
But to displace ineffective approaches and successfully invoke real change, we need to seed ideas broadly and strategically. When I speak with farmers who need and want to be empowered to strengthen or conserve ecosystem services, I am reminded that we still haven’t answered the fundamental questions - Why should I do it? How do I do it? What am I trying to achieve?  Despite good intentions, knowledge isn’t flowing between practitioners, scientists, and policymakers let alone to agricultural land owners. Can innovative approaches to knowledge transfer strengthen both the supply of and demand for ecosystem services on agricultural lands?  
The fundamental questions need to be addressed and the answers communicated with landowners in an efficient and culturally acceptable way. What are your thoughts on the following……

  1. What are we ultimately trying to achieve?
  2. What is the “baseline” for adequate supply of and/or demand for ecosystem services?  
  3. How can tools and resources be developed for and disseminated to those who need them most?  
  4. What novel approaches to communication with landowners might work best across multiple scales? 
Author bio: 
As a Leader of Sustainability Initiatives, Amanda DeSantis is responsible for developing opportunities that incorporate an ecosystem services framework. She serves on policy and technical committees to develop strategies for how organizations and the agricultural sector can respond to ecosystem challenges.


Maria Lavis

Great questions Amanda. I

Great questions Amanda. I agree that bridging the gap between theory and practice is a priority at this point so I'll give a kick at the can:

1. Why should I? What's in it for me?

The answer to this question is, to some degree going to be location and situation specific. It's a kind of prisonner's dilemma of sorts. If one person has to invest time and money into a system that might not pay off, then there might not be something in it for them. (i.e. You spend more time and money on techniques to prevent soil erosion, but don't necessarily increase your yield, maybe even making you less competitive. Or, if you are the only one in your watershed not using a particular pesticide or appying a practice that improves water quality, but every one else is doing the thing that decreases water quality, then there is harly any point for you to do it, as your water will still not be potable.) It might be best to break this question down per topic such as water supply and potability, runoff, downstream effects, composting, biogas digesters instead of manure lagoons, fertilizer issues/solutions, carbon sequestration with tillage, share cropping, quality (taste and health) of produce/livestock etc.

In general though, I think the 'what's in it for me' answer is that through altering practices to consider better supporting and employing ecosystem services, if a farming community tailors their operations to integrate better with the capacities of natural systems (human and animal health, and ecological), their health and their children's health benefit, together they can conserve water and have access to cleaner water which benefits everyone, with the addition of economic instruments for carbon/biodiversity and other PES they have increased choices of how to be rewarded for changing practice that supports ecosystems more, they do not run the risk of flooding or other disasters as much (i.e. not cutting trees on slopes on their property reduces risks of slides, diversifying crops makes one more resilient to weather fluctuations and pest infestations, and not draining wetlands reduces flood risk from local rivers) etc. The what's in if for me is that one gets to live in a healthier environment, have additional choices for revenue, have a more resilient business, one isn't deprecating the value of the land for one's children, feeling better about one's farming practices etc.

2) The baseline depends again on the circumstances (local populations, range of historic use of the ecosystem services etc.)

3) Again depends on where you are. Internet is great for farmers in developed nations, or places with internet access. Can have an easily searchable site with toolkits and information, and maybe even local farmer forums to share best practice stories and how they overcame challenges. In areas without internet, dealing with the maven farmers and doing community needs assessments,  community outreach, and community based social marketing for sustainability may work.

4) An ecosystem services farming internet portal might be good. I've seen similar things for Australia for carbon farming, that seem to have gotten a lot of attention. If these are well organized and the content is easy to understand, there is someone actively managing it, these could be quite effective.


Amanda DeSantis

Thank you Maria for taking

Thank you Maria for taking the time to respond.  You provide some insightful thoughts into "why should I" and "what's in it for me".  I wonder if anyone thinks if reorienting the USDA conservation programs to obtain the baseline and measure progress would spur progress in this area.



Tim Gieseke

Farmers need a

Farmers need a "starting/finsh line"

Amanda - In reference to your second question on the USDA program, I think USDA needs to view their conservation programs within the context of the larger movement that you mention is springing up around the world.   Although the USDA did great things over the last 7-8 decades, that conservation delivery system is not as applicable when non-profits, multi-national corporations, retailers, ag producers and consumers enter the picture en masse.  One can not bring all these new interests into the movement without causing a shift in the center-of-governance, with that shift moving, at least slightly, toward the non-government entities.  Initially, a bureaucracy may perceive this as losing control of the movement, but since this global and national movement is large enough, the shift is occurring with or without the blessing of the USDA.  So to your question, I think the USDA should reorient their program strategy to assist producers in meeting the baseline that is being established by the global sustainability movement and to use their expertise to provide the measuring sticks for performance-based conservation.  I am pretty sure the USDA is not going to define "sustainability" to the inch, but they certainly can provide the guidelines.  I recently completed an AgEQA project for the MnDeptAg to give farmers the means to provide "reasonable assurance" that they meet the state TMDL goals.  We used USDA & university-developed indexes to determine where the farmers' operations reside on the conservation scale (starting line) and we used those indexes to provide a finish line.  Quite amazingly, this simple approach has the capacity to align the activities of numerous stakeholders to assist the producer to get to the finish line.  What emerged was a shared governance model that reduced the complexity and generated watershed intelligence - two new and very valuable attributes in a supply-demand dynamic.  Actually, the USDA programs, as is, worked in this approach.  The USDA conservation programs are not broken, but only appear deficient because they are operating outside the context of the larger sustainability movement. 

Amanda DeSantis

Thanks Tim and I am very

Thanks Tim and I am very interested in learning about the AgEQA project.  Can you direct me where to learn more?  Also, the concept of creating a global monitoring system for agriculture has been ongoing by a number of organizations.  Data and access to data are solely needed. 


Are you aware of ALUS in

Are you aware of ALUS in Ontario?  Although they do not use EG&S language, that it their goal and they have been acheiving success with farmers.  Check out the website - interesting.

I am using ecosystem services to maintain functions on development sites that previously would have been ignored because there are no policies in place to conserve carbon cycling, air quality, water quality and quantity controls.  The tool is much more comprehensive.  As yet I do not have an agricultural audience.



Amanda DeSantis

Thank you for the weblink and

Thank you for the weblink and checking it out.