Study Quantifies Market Value of Nature’s Farming Services

Let’s hope the Earth doesn’t start demanding wages for its free services, but why aren’t we using them?

Heather Callaghan
Activist Post

Can you imagine a workers’ strike among the bees, insects that demand more for aphid removal services, soil that churns out resignation slips, earthworms who stop drilling, plants who refuse to pull nitrogen out of the air and place back in the soil?

Researchers from multiple countries wondered what would happen if nature’s services were factored into grocery prices. (Yikes. Please don’t.) But more than that – why isn’t this free labor being leveraged more to help farmers and stop ravaging the environment? Why is it not considered a value to be looked at with a dollar sign?

How much would an acre of crops be worth with this algorithm? And does that mean organic crops are worth more and leverage free eco-services more?

Researchers from multiple countries quantified the economic value of two ecosystem services – biological control of pests and the release of nitrogen from soil organic matter into plant-accessible forms – in 10 organic and 10 conventional fields on New Zealand grain farms.

What they found when leveraging natural services and calculating their value:

Values greater for organic systems

The values of the two ecosystem services were greater for the organic systems, averaging $146 per acre each year compared to $64 per acre each year in their conventional counterparts.

The combined economic value, including the market value of the crops and the non-market value of the two ecosystem services, was also higher in the organic systems, averaging $1,165 per acre each year compared with $826 per acre each year in conventional fields.

The study showed that the value of the two ecosystem services on the organic farms exceeded the combined cost of traditional pesticide and fertilizer inputs on the conventional farms. The scientists calculated that the potential value of these two services could exceed the global costs of pesticides and fertilizers for growing similar crops, even if the two services were used in just 10 percent of the world’s cropland.

Previous studies have shown how profitable and plentiful it can be to use nature’s free services. Australia can use a natural method deeper in the dirt to increase yields without GMOs and other costly methods. One researcher discovered a better crossbreeding (non-GMO) method to make plants produce even more during a drought. And perhaps the most profound was discovering that introducing multiple bee species could explode yields and bring unforeseen profits. The value of the additional bees’ work totaled almost $1.5 million per year for yields in just one state. Innovation abounds within nature’s own confines – plus there is still room for profit.

Even though the above study probably has good intentions, it also has the “sustainability” babble that seems to suggest high organic prices are okay because it expresses the “true worth” of nature’s services. That, of course, would be absurd, because nature doesn’t exactly get paid in cash or credit. Where would the extra profit go – is someone leaving $20 bills in bee hives? Organic prices should be lower for both farmer and consumer. 

Truthfully, the researchers agree and are simply imploring that the value of better stewardship be factored in – instead of dismissing it as worthless and then spending money on chemicals for short-term convenience. They emphasize both value and profits.

For instance, diverse crop rotations and cover crops can add value, nutrients, yields and profits – IF farmers are able to. Meaning, if they were able to still make a living instead of being driven to repetitious monoculture. Instead of eradicating nature like it’s a foe, it makes more sense (and cents) to usher it in as a profit partner.

The lead author, who wants to get back to incentives for better farming and bring back full-scale eco use, said:

Many people think it’s the responsibility of farmers to enhance the benefits that nature provides. But it’s not always economically feasible because the current market system doesn’t recognize the value of these services.

The reason organic prices are incredibly high has everything to do with shady politics, agri/food politics and the economy and its manipulators. It doesn’t have to be that way – if anything, this study demonstrates one reason why. Working with and leveraging nature is cost effective and can be profitable to farmers, provided they can be allowed and encouraged to use those natural methods without missing a beat or getting punished. Of course, more profit to non-corporate farmers using these methods could be seen as threatening to biotech and chemical services….

Image by Saffron Blaze, licensed under Creative Commons.

Heather Callaghan is a natural health blogger and food freedom activist. You can see her work at and Like at Facebook.

Recent posts by Heather Callaghan:

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