In my opinion, as a society, our valuations of different aspects of life do not reflect their true importance. And even when our valuation of something is high, we often are unable to consistently act in ways that reflect our valuation: one example is placing a high value on environmental quality, yet repeatedly buying those dastardly plastic bottles of water (umm yes, I am referring to my behavior!).
Recently I’ve been thinking about ecosystem services and biodiversity, partly for my Food Systems II class, but also because I am finally beginning to understand how important the ecosystem is. We take the ecosystem, and all it provides us with, for granted, and expect it to perform continuously. Yet this widely cited paper in Nature presents a nice argument for why we should not be so complacent.
I am not a physical or biological scientist, so some of these concepts are foreign to me. Yet the essence of their argument is intuitive: there are several (9, according to the authors) subsystems that are essential for humanity to continue in its current state. If any of the subsystems reaches a critical threshold, then the subsystem might (although this is highly uncertain) react in a nonlinear way, which may create a new, and potentially disastrous situation.
To quote the authors: “We have tried to identify the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change. We have found nine such processes for which we believe it is necessary to define planetary boundaries: climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading.” Rockstrom et al, 2009, Nature 461, 472-475 (24 September 2009) | doi:10.1038/461472a; Published online 23 September 2009.
The authors identify three subsystems that have already been compromised: the rate of biodiversity loss, climate change and human interference with the nitrogen cycle. First, I find that notion very very very frightening. Second, these three are crucially tied to food production. While the ecosystem is necessarily disrupted by food production, I believe we (as a society) need to be more cognizant of the potential impact on the ecosystem of the methods used to raise food. My primary reason for supporting organic production methods is that organic farming is less disruptive to the ecosystem.
This line of reasoning led to me realize – maybe at a new, deeper level – that food really is the link between the ecosystem and humanity. Our food is the product of the ecosystem. Our food nourishes and supports our health (from a nutritional and public health standpoint). The way we raise our food has significant implications for the future health of both the ecosystem and humanity. We need to care for both our ecosystem and our food system in ways that reflect their critical, intertwined, importance.
Back to valuations: as a society, we clearly value low priced food over just about everything else, which includes ecosystem health, public health, and the future potential productivity of the land. Either we need to change our behavior out of altruism (not likely) or we need to become better at pricing these non market benefits and costs. Well designed public policy should be supporting the health of our ecosystem, of our population, and the quality our food.