Stewarding the environment: is it self-serving?

Ecosystem services and modern food practices

Tilman and Clark frame the conversation concerning the importance and implications of modern agricultural and food practices within ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are the benefits that we derive from ecosystems; the World Resources Institute (WRI) categorizes ecosystem services as provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting. The production of food is one example of a provisioning ecosystem service; Tilman and Clark describe how our management of a secure supply of food conflicts with the sustainable functioning of other ecosystem services.

 WRI suggests that there has been rapid degradation of our ecosystems in consequence of increasing the supply of certain ecosystem services. These changes and increased supply of ecosystems services have produced an unequal distribution of costs and benefits, with the costs being borne disproportionately by the poor or deferred to future generations. This perspective can be applied to Tilman and Clark’s exposition of modern agricultural and food practices. Modern agricultural and food practices have served to improve the overall supply of one ecosystem service: food. According to Tilman and Clark, the benefits of a secure food supply include: stable government, increased education, and increased economic opportunities. These benefits have largely been experienced by developed countries. The costs of a secure food supply include: habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of terrestrial ecosystems’ nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, and changing land use with far-reaching impacts on biodiversity; these costs all represent disruption of long-term and sustainable functioning of other ecosystem services.

 Both the Tilman paper and WRI report assume that we should be responsible for stewarding ecosystem services, and there is (technological) optimism here. Tilman and Clark suggest that there are key technological innovations and cultural shifts that would allow a reversal of ecosystem degradation while increasing supply of services. For example, global adoption of vegetarian diets would decrease overall greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the other solutions proposed are designed to respond to inefficiencies in the current system: by reducing the “yield gap” through use of fertilizer and crop breeding programs, reducing food waste through better crop storage, minimizing the consumption of “empty calories”, and optimizing the use of fertilizer.

 The WRI report presents four alternative governance systems: Global Orchestration, Order from Strength, Adapting Mosaic, and TechnoGarden.

  • Global Orchestration: “a globally connected society that focuses on global trade and economic liberalization and takes a reactive approach to eco- system problems but that also takes strong steps to reduce poverty and inequality and to invest in public goods such as infrastructure and education.”
  • Order from Strength: “a regionalized and fragmented world, concerned with security and protection, emphasizing primarily regional markets, paying little attention to public goods, and taking a reactive approach to ecosystem problems.”
  • Adapting Mosaic: “regional watershed-scale ecosystems are the focus of political and economic activity.”
  • TechnoGarden: “a globally connected world relying strongly on environmentally sound technology, using highly managed, often engineered, ecosystems to deliver ecosystem services, and taking a proactive approach to the management of ecosystems in an effort to avoid problems.”

WRI then use these different governance systems to explore different potential futures for ecosystems and humans’ wellbeing. How would each governance system enact a change like “avoiding the shift to environmentally harmful diets,” proposed by Tilman and Clark to mitigate the future impact of modern agricultural practices on the environment? Which of these governance systems would be most effective in stewarding this particular cultural transition?


Tilman, D., & Clark, M. (2015). Food, Agriculture & the Environment: Can we feed the world and save the Earth? Daedalus, 144(4), 8-23.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.