Making hay of environmental goods and services

Researchers wrestle with turning an abstract concept into concrete profits for producers

If you were to ask most cattle producers about the goods and services their grasslands provide, it might seem like an obvious question. Most would say that quality forage promotes the health of their cattle, provides high-quality protein and boosts their bottom line. Others might talk about how their grazing practices promote biodiversity and overall environmental health.

Both are fundamentally correct in their definitions of the environmental goods and services (EG&S) provided by grasslands. But those answers are only the beginning of what is currently a somewhat vague and academic concept. If EG&S such as carbon storage and biodiversity have the potential for a dollar value, should producers be paid for owning and managing those services? And if so, how do you assign that value and develop a system of trade to support it?

It’s the job of researchers such as Edward Bork to help answer such questions. Bork, a researcher with the University of Alberta’s Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science department, says understanding these services is more crucial than ever in an era of escalating stresses such as grassland conversion and climate change.

“What we’re starting to recognize as a society is that these perennial systems, particularly our native grasslands, provide benefits to society that go far beyond forage and livestock commodities. Those benefits affect all of us,” he says.

“We want to develop solid baselines for the biophysical contributions from grasslands, whether it’s carbon storage or pollinator diversity. If you don’t have that baseline information, then it’s impossible to attach a dollar value to it. Once the important task of quantifying the size of those benefits is done the next step is to find the right policy mechanisms to promote, conserve or even increase them from these systems.”

Grazing a fit for EG&S

One thing that makes EG&S so hard to define is that they cover pretty much everything in the agro-ecosystem. These “goods” include habitat, water and millions of species including animals, plants and even soil organisms that haven’t yet been fully identified.

“The services include the provision of wildlife habitat for both consumptive — those we hunt — and non-consumptive species. They include rainfall infiltration, flood mitigation and water purification since a lot of our rangelands are also major watersheds. It also includes carbon storage, which is obviously an important good and service because if carbon is stored in the ground it’s not in the atmosphere contributing to rising CO2 levels,” says Bork.

The good news is that good rangeland management already promotes these values.

“If you look at these rangelands they evolved with grazing and often plenty of it,” says Bork. “It is well known that in many grasslands, including those of Western Canada, moderate grazing actually boosts overall plant diversity.”

Overall, producers have done a good job of maintaining grasslands, using conservative stocking rates and giving the land time to regenerate, says Bork. “What we don’t necessarily understand is how the other environmental goods and services, the ones we know are out there but may be not be as well understood, how do they respond?

Although research will continue to reveal how producers can hone their practices, Bork does not foresee any findings that could negatively affect grazing as a viable, socially acceptable facilitator of EG&S. If anything, the results of a study Bork led with support from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) suggests the biggest threat to these goods and services, aside from urban development, may be market-driven incentives to switch land use to forms of agriculture that provide fewer EG&S.

“Just by flipping native grasslands into cropland you’re eliminating upwards of 40 to 50 per cent of the carbon stores. But what incentive is there for a farmer to retain grasslands for carbon storage? There isn’t one. So until there’s a market mechanism to reward producers for that they’re not going to change their management to accommodate the service.”

Potential for pollinators

One of the keys to discovering the value of EG&S is finding the species that deliver them. The collapse of bee populations throughout the world has brought new focus on the role of pollinators in crop production. A U of A study seeks to take the discussion beyond honeybees towards the countless other unknown, unnamed pollinators.

“If we can start understanding which species of bee are really doing this pollination work, then we can start to figure out their contributions to canola and other flowering crops and their contributions to the production of flowering plants within rangelands,” says Cameron Carlyle, a fellow rangeland researcher with the U of A.

“From there we want to figure out what systems of cattle management might benefit these pollinators and reap the benefits in terms of forage.”

Carlyle’s team has identified 140 bee species in Alberta so far. “We found there’s a great deal of variability in their numbers and abundance across the province. Depending on where you are there are differences in abundance of species between rangelands and canola fields. We have 15,000 bees to identify one at a time so it’s a bit of a slog.”

Another issue is parasites on commercial honeybees. “We’ve been finding the same or similar parasites on native bees but we don’t know if they’ve always been there or whether this is a new thing,” Carlyle says.

Even if species can be identified it is difficult to know how to conserve or manage them. “With a lot of species we don’t even know if they nest in the ground, if they nest in trees or stems or if they prefer one species of flower over another. There are so many species.”

Carbon storage questions

A major question around EG&S is how much carbon the soil can hold under drought conditions, which are expected to intensify with climate change. The U of A is embarking on a three-year study looking at carbon storage and the resilience of forage production under extreme drought.

“With climate change we are expecting the amount of rainfall in the Prairies to actually go up,” says Carlyle. “However, accompanying those wet years will be increases in temperature and increases in year-to-year variability in precipitation that will likely lead to extreme drought years that are really going to limit our agro-ecosystems.”

Using large structures to simulate a number of rainfall conditions and clipping to mimic grazing, Carlyle and his team will attempt to discover which management practices work best. “The basic question is whether these different defoliation regimes modify the plant community in a way that makes it more resilient to grazing and allows it to still put plenty of carbon into the ground,” says Carlyle.

Patience is key

In Alberta, the government and the scientific community have only recently taken their first steps towards discovering the price of various EG&S. However, this process will likely prove difficult. How, for example, does one put a dollar value on a concept as vague as biodiversity?

“One of our upcoming projects, which we’ve nicknamed the beef and biodiversity project, and again funded by ALMA, is a good example of that,” says Bork. “One of our goals with that study is to find out how ecosystem biodiversity, either in whole or in part, can be incorporated into the routine livestock management practices of ranchers. The challenge is that different species have different values to society. If it’s an invasive species do you count that as a negative if it is displacing native species or as a positive if in the end it is increasing forage production and carbon storage? There are all sorts of complexities.”

This article first appeared as a “Forage & Grassland Guide” special supplement in the March 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

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