About the theme

The accelerated degradation which natural resources have been undergoing, fruit of the land use and cover dynamics, and inadequate soil, water, and biodiversity management, has caused a world concern in the last few decades. The conversion of forests into cattle farming or agricultural lands, in addition to urbanization and industrialization processes, has had a negative impact on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In rural areas, deforestation, inadequate agricultural practices and indiscriminate use of agrochemicals have led to soil degradation, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, among others. Such impacts have compromised the natural performance and self-regulation of the environment and respective ability to provide ecosystem services and environmental services.

Ecosystem services are the benefits that human beings obtain from ecosystems. These include provision services, such as foods and water; regulation, such as the regulation of floods, droughts, soil degradation; support services, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling;  and cultural services, such as leisure, spiritual, religious and other immaterial benefits (MA, 2005). On the other hand, environmental services are defined as the environmental benefits resulting from intentional interventions from society in ecosystem dynamics (Muradian et al., 2010). They refer to the conservationist management of the soil, water, forest rehabilitation, among others. According to HERMANN et al. (2011), the concept of ecosystem services traces back to the late 1960s and 1970s. In the following three decades, other scientists would draw attention to economic dependence on natural capital (WESTMAN, 1977; OF GROOT, 1987; DAILY, 1997 and COSTANZA and FOLKE 1997).

Compromising the provision of environmental/ecosystem services not only generates economic impacts, but also affects human health, well-being and the operation of societies. Hence the scientific community has been assessing and systematizing information on such services, in recognition of the need and the urgency of taking innovative measures to protect ecosystems while conciliating conservation with economic development. Within such scope, the agricultural and forest sectors can contribute both in the supply and in the suppression of environmental services. Agricultural ecosystems cover about 40% of the surface the Earth, and the sustainable management of such agroecosystems, aligning agricultural production with the provision of ecosystem services, s desirable for the development of production systems that conserve natural resources for future use.

State of the art

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005), a major reference in the subject, evaluated the consequences that changes to ecosystems cause to human well-being, and the scientific foundations for the actions required to improve the conservation and sustainable use of such ecosystems. Since then, several authors and projects have performed the classification, assessment, quantification, mapping, modelling and valuation of ecosystem services around the world, in order to inform decision-making with regard to ecosystems. The ecosystem approach is premised on: a systemic and interdisciplinary vision; adding value to ecosystem services related to human well-being; internalization of the costs of maintaining ecosystem services in production systems, and closer ties between science and public policy.

There is a classification of ecosystem services proposed by the MA, 2005, which has been applied in most recent studies:

Ecosystem Services

  • Regulating Services: Examples: Climate regulation, regulation of human diseases, biological control, erosion control, water regulation and purification, and pollination.
  • Provisioning Services (supply): Examples: Food, fresh water, fuelwood, fiber, biochemicals, and genetic resources.
  • Cultural Services: Examples: Ecotourism and recreation, spiritual and religious values, aesthetic values, inspiration, knowledge systems, sense of place and cultural heritage values.
  • Supporting Services: Examples: Soil formation, oxygen production, nutrient cycling, and primary production.

There are several national and international research networks working on the subject. A study conducted by Embrapa (Lima et al, 2015) identified that the number of publications on the topic has been significantly increasing in recent years (Figure below).

Evolution of scientific publications related to the topic in recent years.

In the scope of public policy, the ecosystem services approach is being applied all over the world, fostering platforms, several discussion forums and even international negotiations aiming at achieving protocols and targets that contribute to global sustainability. In Brazil, the situation is not different. There have been several governmental and non-governmental initiatives in different scales in favor of the provision of ecosystem services related to water, carbon and biodiversity. Other highlights include Law 12651/2012, which established the New Forest Code; Law 12187/2009, which established the National Climate Change Policy and the Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Sector Plan to Consolidate a Low-Carbon Economy (ABC Plan); and the Water Producing Program of the National Water Agency, which enabled projects of Payment for Environmental Water Service.

The Payment for Environmental Services (PES) is a financial mechanism that allows voluntary compensation to land users (payment or another form) for the adoption of better forest management and rehabilitation practices that can result in ecosystem services, to the benefit of a specific user or of society as a whole. Congress is also considering several bills that propose the National Policy on the Payment for Environmental Services, which will create guidelines for the implementation of PES in Brazil.

Embrapa has expanding their scpode of operations in the area and already has several research groups focused on ecosystem and environmental services in all Brazilian biomes that compose a Research Network named Environmental Services in the Brazilian Agricultural Landscape.

Research Network: Environmental Services in the Brazilian Agricultural Landscape

It was created in 2014 to allow the integration and exchange of experiences between Embrapa research groups working in different biomes, external partners, and farmers. This Research Network is one of more than “Project Arrangements” within Embrapa. The network aims at developing knowledge and tools to inform action and policies to recover, maintain and broaden environmental services and strengthen sustainable production systems in agricultural landscapes. The main lines of research related to the network are: Analysis and assessment of public policies; Assessment, monitoring and modeling; Capacity-building and exchange of experiences in ES; Tools for the systematization and standardization of methods and information organization; Geotechnologies applied to spatial analyses; Selection, validation and application of indicators; Support to compensation and valuation; and Conservacionist technologies, practices, recommendations and alternatives for the provision of ES in agrosystems.

This network is coordinated by a group of 5 researchers, representatives of Embrapa units in different Brazilian biomes: Embrapa Soils, Embrapa Forestry, Embrapa Cerrados, Embrapa Eastern Amazon, and Embrapa Maize and Sorghum. However, in total, it is composed by over 100 researchers from approximately 20 Embrapa units, as well as external partners.

The groups mostly have an interdisciplinary and multiscale (national, regional and local) performance, with specificities in accordance with the natural, social and economic characteristics of their regions and their experience and specialties, with the production systems therein, as well as with some similar demands from society.

It is expected that the network's research results will generate support information for the conservation, recovery and valuation of ecosystem and environmental services in natural systems and in agricultural and forest production systems. Production systems are believed to be capable of generating not only disservices, as was the case throughout the last decades, but also contribute to improving and increasing the provision of ecosystem services from the adequate use and management of agroecosystemas in the agricultural landscape, as presented in Figure 3.

To learn more about the network, access the publication "Pesquisas em serviços ecossistêmicos e ambientais na paisagem rural do Brasil".

Services and disservices provided by agroecosystems in the rural landscape. Source: Alison G. Power, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2010;365:2959-2971.

Some research results in the area

Some research results in the scope of the Embrapa Environmental Services Network can be observed as follows:

  • Conservationist systems that use soils as suppliers of environmental services, such as no-till farming systems, integrated production systems (agroforestry systems, integrated crop-livestock and crop-livestock-forestry systems), organic and agroecological systems (Manejo e conservação do solo e da água no contexto das mudanças ambientais)
  • Survey of methodologies used to monitor Payment for Hydro-Environmental Services (PHES) programs in Brazil (Metodologias de monitoramento de programas de pagamento por serviços ambientais hídricos no Brasil)
  • Recognition of soils as suppliers of essential ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, water filtering and storage, and food production, in addition to proposing indicators, assessment methods and valuation of soil ecosystem services    (Current overview and potential applications of the soil ecosystem services approach in Brazil)
  • Design of public policy on environmental services aimed at family farming, traditional populations, and indigenous peoples (MATTOS, L.;  HERCOWITZ, M. (Ed.). Economia do meio ambiente e serviços ambientais: estudo aplicado à agricultura familiar, às populações tradicionais e aos povos indígenas. Brasília: Embrapa Informação Tecnológica, 2011. 294 p)
  • Design of public policy on environmental services aimed at family farming, traditional populations, and indigenous peoples.

Research challenges in the area

The formulation and application of methodologies to assess the quality of environmental functions and services can inform the decisions of farmers, managers and other direct users of natural resources, as well as help the development and the use of political-economic tools to identify and encourage natural resource management actors and practices, to benefit the conservation of environmental services. The internalization of the concept of provision and regulation of environmental services in production systems, in decision-making processes, in territorial management, and in agricultural and forest land use and management can result in evident positive environmental impacts in the agricultural landscape and in human well-being.

There are demands and gaps concerning regional and local environmental services, which need to be supplied to obtain efficiency and sustainability in the agricultural and forestry sectors and which research can aid, such as: analysis of public policy; assessment and monitoring; analysis of land use and cover dynamics; consolidation of landscape quality indicators; systematization and standardization of protocols; development and application of new assessment and monitoring methods; support to valuation and compensation mechanisms; spatial analysis of the agricultural landscape through geotechnologies; dissemination of methods and tools to support decision-making; information organization and transfer of results; promotion of efficient communications with different segments of society with regard to the subject; promotion of conservationist technologies, processes and production systems; and training of human resources in the area.

The organization and publicization of information to support decisions in the agricultural sector is also one of the roles of agricultural and forestry research, aiming at bringing science closer to public policy.