Do we need to place more emphasis on ecosystem services?

The view of Jacqui Meyer, TIPWG secretariat and Forestry consultant and Dr Katy Johnson, FSA communication consultant

What are ecosystems services?

Ecosystem services are simply defined as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems” ( and as such are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being. In simple terms, ecosystem services support, both directly or indirectly, our survival and quality of life.

While essential for human well-being, most of these services are usually taken for granted. There is, however, a growing interest and emphasis being placed on ecosystem services, which in part can be attributed to:

    • the Sustainable Development Goals which required governments to priorities sustainability, in particular, the sustainability of natural resources; and
    • the incentives linked to ecosystem conservation.

Ecosystem services categories:

Ecosystem services are divided into four categories, with the supporting services providing the basis for the services in the other three categories:

    1. Provisioning services: When people are asked to identify a service provided by nature, most think of food; fruits, vegetables, trees, fish and livestock are available to us as direct products of ecosystems. However, a provisioning service is any type of benefit to people that can be extracted from nature, meaning drinking water, timber, wood fuel, natural gas, oils, plants that can be made into clothes and other materials and medicinal benefits, are also provisioning services.
    2. Regulating services: Ecosystems provide many of the basic services that make life possible for all living things. Regulating services include pollination, decomposition, water purification, erosion and flood control, carbon storage and climate regulation and all the biotic and abiotic factors involved with these. Regulating services work together in providing an ecosystem that’s clean, sustainable, functional and resilient to change. In short, it is the benefits provided by ecosystem processes that moderate natural phenomena.
    3. Cultural services: As we interact and alter nature, the natural world has in turn altered us. It has guided our cultural, intellectual and social development by being a constant force present in our lives. The importance of ecosystems to the human mind can be traced back to the beginning of mankind with ancient civilizations drawing pictures of animals, plants and weather patterns on cave walls. A cultural service is a non-material benefit that contributes to the development and cultural advancement of people, including how ecosystems play a role in local, national and global cultural identities; the building of knowledge and the spreading of ideas; creativity born from interactions with nature (music, art, architecture); and recreation.
    4. Supporting services: The natural world provides so many services, sometimes we overlook the most fundamental. Ecosystems themselves couldn’t be sustained without the consistency of underlying natural processes, such as photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, the creation of soils and the water cycle. These processes allow the Earth to sustain basic life forms, let alone whole ecosystems and people. Without supporting services, provisional, regulating, and cultural services wouldn’t exist.


Ecosystem services in a SA plantation forestry context.

The Forestry Explained website illustrates the numerous ways in which plantation forestry in South Africa creates, enhances and provides ecosystem services; from creating carbon sinks and mountain biking trails, to employment in rural areas where jobs are scarce to the harvesting of honey and timber for food, fuel and as a source of income.

    1. Provisioning services: While the provisioning services provided by South African commercial forestry centres around the production of timber for various products, there are many non-timber products which can be extracted from the forestry landscape. Much potential exists for agroforestry where food and other crops are also planted and harvested, communal grazing is provided of livestock along with honey harvesting, firewood collection and medicinal (medicinal plants) gathering. Most of these supplementary provisional services do not directly benefit the forest owner, but rather the surrounding communities and forestry workforce, and the consumers of such products.
    2. Regulating services: The mosaic nature of South Africa’s forestry landscape is a result of planted compartments interspersed with unplanted natural areas of grasslands, wetland, indigenous forest, riparian ecosystems, and in the Cape, fynbos. These natural ecosystems, along with the planted trees, provide a suite of regulating services, including the filtering of water, cleaning of air, prevention of soil erosion, provision of a wide variety of habitat for a diverse number of species that all contribute to yet more regulating services. Forestry by nature will reduce the level of regulating services if compared directly to a natural landscape. Yet, over the past three decades, a concerted effort has been made at both an operator and regulatory level, including certification, to employ best practices and offset forestry’s environmental footprint. An interesting exercise would be to compare forestry’s footprint and the services provided by its patchwork landscape to those of other primary land uses.
    3. Cultural services: This ranges from the preservation of graves and other Special Management Zones (SMZ) for local cultural purposes to the development of an extensive network of recreational trails for hiking, biking, running and even birdwatching. This is possibly the most underrated and underused ecosystem service in South African plantations, one which needs developing and marketing.
    4. Supporting services: The South African forestry landscape provides many of the supporting services associated with forests of all types, including carbon cycling or storage, photosynthesis and the production of oxygen, soil creation and the water cycle.

 Integrated Pest Management as part of ecosystem services

Integrated Pest Management involves the consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimise the risk to human health and the environment.” – Food and Agricultural Organisation  

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach advocates the conscious decision to “take no action” when appropriate, and the need to consider the impacts that may arise both from the pest, disease or weed itself, as well as from any control measures that might be adopted to manage the problem.

Why is IPM so important in ecosystem services?

The indiscriminate use of pest management practices by any agri-sector industry, particularly those that rely on pesticides, can have significant negative impacts on biodiversity and consequently on ecosystem services. Case in point is the loss of pollinator diversity in Europe which has been attributed to high pesticide usage during the past century (Shankar, 2014).

IPM, when practised correctly, can significantly reduce the impact of pest management practices on biodiversity. This is because the principle of retaining the pest species, thus biodiversity, at levels deemed tolerable or below an economic threshold is fundamental to the IPM philosophy.

The loss of non-target, predatory or parasitic species, because of indiscriminate pesticide use not only results in a loss of biodiversity and the ecosystem services these provide. It also increases the pest burden. The habitat manipulation techniques employed by IPM, can positively increase natural enemy biodiversity and strengthen biological control services. However, for these techniques to be effective, there is a need to adopt and implement an effective IPM programme to manage and potentially reduce pesticide use through maximising biological control services, while also avoiding negative impacts of an over-reliance on pesticides.

What can be done?

Despite their ecological, cultural and economic importance, globally, biodiversity and the associated ecological services are still being degraded and lost at an unmatched rate and scale.

One major reason for this is that the value (importance) of these ecosystems and their services to human welfare is still underestimated and not fully recognised.

This is evident in local, national and global planning and decision-making where ecosystem services are only partly captured, if at all, in conventional market economics, even though, many of these ecological services provide direct/indirect financial gains, for example, income derived from recreational pursuits on forestry land or the soil’s ability to hold essential nutrients thus requiring less chemical input etc.

So how do we place more emphasis on ecological services and biodiversity?

One way we are already placing ecological services and biodiversity high on the agenda is by opting to implement an IPM programme in South African plantations. In this way, the threshold values applied ensure chemical pest controls are only used once pest levels exceed the economic thresholds where the cost of damage exceeds the cost of control.

IPM also challenges the industry to look at ‘no action’ scenarios before taking any pest control measures. By taking this approach to pest control, versus the spray-on sight or scheduled spray approaches, we are decreasing the impact pesticide use on both biodiversity and ecological services.

Could we do more?

It would be an interesting exercise to see how the protection and maintenance of a broad range of ecological services could be incorporated into an IPM programme. The impact on selecting, for example, cultural control methods over chemical control could be worth interrogating. For now, however, if we ensure IPM is properly applied and pest control actions are only undertaken when necessary, we will be taking the kind of sustainable approach required to ensure both biodiversity and ecosystem services within the forestry landscape are conserved.


Shankar, U, April 2014. Pesticides, Food Safety and Integrated Pest Management Integrated pest management: Pesticide problems, vol.3 (pp.167-199)

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