Composites Design and Manufacture (Plymouth University teaching support materials)
The value of Eco-System Services
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In 1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned of major societal upheavals and mass starvation unless there was immediate action to limit human population.  Meadows et al then published a report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind, The Limits to Growth [2].  While the respective crises have been delayed, not avoided, the authors of the original predictions have updated their positions [3, 4].

Costanza et al [5] estimated the value of the non-marketed contribution of the world’s ecosystem services to human welfare at US$16-54 trillion per year (with a mean of US$33 trillion) in $1994.  This figure was significantly larger than the corresponding global GNP at $18 trillion per year and was considered to be an underestimate.  Toman [6] suggested that "economic assessment of ecosystem benefits and opportunity costs [are] one important element of the information set that must go into social decision making, even though a simple cost-benefit test cannot determine what actions are appropriate". He states that "a default value of zero for a difficult-to-measure ecological value, as is used (explicitly or implicitly) in a number of cost-benefit analyses, is no more defensible scientifically than a default value of infinity" which only reinforces the need to appreciate the context of the analysis.  He then concludes that the fundamental problem with the analysis in [5] is "that there is little that can be usefully done with a serious underestimate of infinity"!

Imhoff and Bounoua [7] report that the human species constitutes around 0.5% of the total biomass of organisms that require organic compounds to get carbon for growth and development, yet globally they consume 20% of the net primary production from the land, i.e. the supply of food energy. Kern [8] has summarised the debate about food, feed, fibre, fuel and industrial products.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines soil quality/soil health as "the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing soils so they are sustainable for future generations. To do this, we need to remember that soil contains living organisms that when provided the basic necessities of life - food, shelter, and water - perform functions required to produce food and fiber" [9].  Montgomery [10] argues that "cultivated soils erode bit by bit, slowly enough to be ignored in a single lifetime but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations", and "sees in the recent rise of organic and no-till farming the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the fate of previous civilizations".  Tolputt [11] considers the remedy to be Five pillars for good soil:

  1. reduced or zero tillage
  2. ground cover crops pump goodness back to the soil
  3. diverse rotations including chicory, clover and plantain
  4. reduce harmful inputs
  5. integration of livestock


  1. PR Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, Pan Books, London, 1971.  ISBN 0-345-02139-8.
  2. DH Meadows, DL Meadows, J Randers and WW Behrens, The Limits to Growth, Pan Books, London, 1972.  ISBN 0-330-24169-9.  Digital scan version.
  3. DH Meadows, DL Meadows and J Randers, Beyond the Limits, Earthscan, London, 1992.  ISBN 1-85383-131-x.
  4. PR Ehrlich and AH Ehrlich, Population, resources, and the faith-based economy: the situation in 2016, BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, May 2016, 1:3.  First online 18 April 2016.
  5. Robert Costanza, R d'Arge, R de Groot, S Farber, M Grasso, B Hannon, K Limburg, S Naeem, RV O'Neill, J Paruelo, RG Raskin, P Sutton and M van den Belt, The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital, Nature, 15 May 1997, 387(6630), 253-260.
    University of Vermont free downloadThe Encyclopaedia of Earth, 2007.
  6. Michael Toman, Why not to calculate the value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital, Ecological Economics, April 1998, 25(1), 57-70.
  7. ML Imhoff and L Bounoua, Exploring global patterns of net primary production carbon supply and demand using satellite observations and statistical data, Journal of Geophysical Research, 2006, 111, D22S13 (extended abstract as 9.15MB PDF file.
  8. M Kern, Food, feed, fibre, fuel and industrial products of the future: challenges and opportunities - understanding the strategic potential of plant genetic engineering, Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science, 2002, 188 (5), 291–305.
  9. Anon., Healthy Soil for Life, United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, accessed 28 July 2020.
  10. DR Montgomery, Dirt; The Erosion of Civilizations, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles CA, April 2012.  ISBN 978-0-520-27290-3.
  11. Tom Tolputt, Soil health, GROWING BACK webinar: a resilient and sustainable approach to agriculture and food in the South West ~ The Climate Challenge, Agri-tech Cornwall & ERDF, 28 July 2020.

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Created by John Summerscales on 21 October 2008 and updated on 06-Aug-2020 16:13. Terms and conditions. Errors and omissions. Corrections.