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Can farmers get value from good eco practices?

How much is that deer or pond worth to society, and who will pay and how much to have it there? Key questions about ecological goods and services

The sign could say “EG&S Sold Here” at the end of most farm lanes in Canada. Does this mean there’s a barn nearby full of laying hens? No. EG&S is shorthand for Environmental Goods and Services. EG&S represent a lot of the things that benefit society but don’t have any monetary value assigned to them. Another way to think of them is that EG&S represents all of the things that we won’t miss until they are gone.

EG&S include broad benefits to society such as clean air, sequestration and storage of carbon, clean water, aquifer replenishment, open spaces, scenic views, wildlife habitat, species and biodiversity preservation and a host of other benefits.

As an example of how we often view EG&S, let’s take clean water. Most of us take for granted that when we turn on our tap we will collect a glass of something reasonable to drink. There may be a small cost of treatment, but it does not equate to a large portion of our annual incomes. Now imagine a major oil spill or disaster in that drinking water supply. When the clean water is gone, the treatment costs go way up. The benefit is hard to sell, because the offsetting cost is hidden until it is too late.

This phenomenon is part of what is termed “the tragedy of the commons.” In essence, because nobody “owns” the resource it may not be looked after, since the best way to profit is to take advantage before someone else gets it. Society attempts to circumvent this occurrence through several methods. One of the oldest and most successful methodologies is through culture. Many societies through history have developed complex systems to encourage veneration of nature into their teachings and expected behaviours.

In the modern world, we are often dealing with a populace that is removed from this interaction and has limited time to realize that they truly value and require many of the things that nature provides. This removal sometimes provokes fear and misunderstanding that is often manifested in sometimes rightly and sometimes-draconian legislation. Often, even good legislation does not have enforcement attached to it.

Low-cost delivery

Most farmers/ranchers I know are not exactly gung ho advocates for legislation, but we do have a significant role to play in the EG&S story, and in developing cultural and market-based solutions to the tragedy.

I am often left in amazement at the environmental efforts of many producers — both good and bad — however we are starting to see that society is placing value on these efforts and may be willing to pay for the ecological goods and services. Farmers have the potential to deliver these products at ground level for a low cost.

Generally farmers are experts at growing things, finding innovative and inexpensive solutions to problems, and caring about the land. We are not so good at letting the public know about this skill set or the fact that as producers we have the same concerns and commitment to the environment as “Joe Public.”

The marketplace for EG&S is evolving. Some examples of marketing EG&S include conservation easements, some provincial programs and alternative land use initiatives across the country. There have been some failures for sure, but I think that is more to due with the market mechanism than with the concept.

Legislation is nearly always cost based, and people will try to avoid the cost of the legislation. If the cost is too punitive, they will fall in line (if they fear enforcement), however often the costs of implementation are high enough that people will take the risk of not getting caught.

I see the emerging EG&S marketplace as providing a glimmer of being value based. Allowing the public the assign a value and payment for initiatives that benefit “the commons” encourages the folks on the ground (farmers and ranchers) to provide those services. The people who can do it for the least cost, then reap the most reward.

Farmers and ranchers have a real role to play in encouraging and participating both in providing the service, but also in developing the marketplace for those services. This is a big stretch for a lot of us, but as mentioned previously there are several market development pilot projects on the go across the country.

ALUS

Our operation and several others are involved in a couple of these, with the most prevalent being the ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) project in the Country of Vermilion River. This approach is being replicated with various localized versions in regions across the country. It does not involve taking acres out of production in a glorious return to nature. Instead it involves using that land base to produce a different blend of goods and services.

There are participants in our local project developing pollinator habitat, planting trees, providing wildlife habitat, seeding native grasses, fencing riparian areas, and any other manner of creative solutions. The trick is and will continue to be developing the tools that enable the commons to pay for the services they want and need. Agricultural producers have a key role in encouraging the public realization that the services matter and that we are often the people best suited to do something about it.

For information on ALUS go to www.alus.ca. †

About the author

Contributor

Sean McGrath is a rancher and consultant from Vermilion, Alta. He can be reached at [email protected] or (780) 853- 9673. For additional information visit www.ranchingsystems.com.

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