Woodlands and Wetlands Could be Worth More When Left to Nature Than When Farmed

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

University of Cambridge scientists, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds,  this week released a study – the largest to date of its kind – suggesting that the idea that economic development, in the form of farming, logging  or other resource extraction – necessarily produces more value than leaving wetland and woodland ecosystems intact is false.

The team examined dozens of sites, worldwide, rinclding some in China, Fiji, Kenya, Nepal, as well as the U.K.

In other words, as the Guardian tells the story in Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds:

….further modifying nature for human use could be costing society more than it benefits it, but these “natural capital” costs are often not taken into account by decision-makers.

The latest study, The economic consequences of conserving or restoring sites for nature, was published in the journal Nature Sustainability. From the abstract:

Nature provides many benefits for people, yet there are few data on how changes at individual sites impact the net value of ecosystem service provision. A 2002 review found only five analyses comparing the net economic benefits of conserving nature versus pursuing an alternative, more intensive human use. Here we revisit this crucial comparison, synthesizing recent data from 62 sites worldwide. In 24 cases with economic estimates of services, conservation or restoration benefits (for example, greenhouse gas regulation, flood protection) tend to outweigh those private benefits (for example, profits from agriculture or logging) driving change to the alternative state. Net benefits rise rapidly with increasing social cost of carbon. Qualitative data from all 62 sites suggest that monetization of additional services would further increase the difference. Although conservation and restoration did not universally provide greater net value than the alternative state, across a large, geographically and contextually diverse sample, our findings indicate that at current levels of habitat conversion, conserving and restoring sites typically benefits human prosperity. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta’s Comprehensive Review Commissioned by UK Treasury

Last month, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta released a comprehensive review, commissioned by the UK Treasury, which according to this Guardian account, Economics’ failure over destruction of nature presents ‘extreme risks’, concluded:

The world is being put at “extreme risk” by the failure of economics to take account of the rapid depletion of the natural world and needs to find new measures of success to avoid a catastrophic breakdown, a landmark review has concluded.

Now, I’ve yet to study Dasgupta’s 600 page review, so I will rely here on the Guardian’s summary of that tome:

Prosperity was coming at a “devastating cost” to the ecosystems that provide humanity with food, water and clean air, said Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta, the Cambridge University economist who conducted the review. Radical global changes to production, consumption, finance and education were urgently needed, he said.

The 600-page review was commissioned by the UK Treasury, the first time a national finance ministry has authorised a full assessment of the economic importance of nature. A similar Treasury-sponsored review in 2006 by Nicholas Stern is credited with transforming economic understanding of the climate crisis.

The review said that two UN conferences this year – on biodiversity and climate change – provided opportunities for the international community to rethink an approach that has seen a 40% plunge in the stocks of natural capital per head between 1992 and 2014.

“Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better,” said Dasgupta. “Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them. It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with nature. Covid-19 has shown us what can happen when we don’t do this.”

Study Published This Week In Nature Sustainability

Back to the much shorter and therefore more tractable study published this week in Nature. This study suggests that the notion that there is necessarily a trade off between economic benefits that follow from development and qualitatively different benefits that arise from conservation, preservation, or restoration of nature is false.  From the Guardian,Land could be worth more left to nature than when farmed, study finds:

For the latest study, scientists worked out the annual net value of the chosen sites if they stayed “nature-focused” compared with an “alternative” non-nature focused state over 50 years. They valued each tonne of carbon as worth $31 (£22) to global society, a calculation generally considered to be quite conservative.

More than 70% of these nature-rich sites were found to be worth more in net economic benefits to people if they were left as natural habitats, and all forested sites were worth more with the trees left standing, according to the paper, published in Nature Sustainability. This suggests that even if people were only interested in money – and not nature – conserving these habitats still makes financial sense. Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.

The senior author of the research expanded on and reinforced that point in a University of Cambridge press release, Economic benefits of protecting nature now outweigh those of exploiting it:

Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge and senior author of the research, said: “Current rates of habitat conversion are driving a species extinction crisis unlike anything in human history.”

“Even if you are only interested in dollars and cents, we can see that conserving and restoring nature is now very often the best bet for human prosperity. The findings echo at an operational scale the overall conclusions drawn by the Dasgupta Review,” he said.

The study’s lead author cautioned against surrendering to potential biases when analysing the question.From the Guardian:

The study’s lead author, Dr Richard Bradbury, head of environmental research at the RSPB and an honorary fellow at Cambridge University, said: “As a conservation scientist at RSPB, you have to be acutely aware of your potential prejudices and be as neutral as possible in the analysis. Yet I was still surprised at how strongly the results favoured conservation and restoration.”

Now, this study is certainly important, especially if policy makers are making decisions according to a spurious trade-off, which doesn’t value conservation or restoration properly.  But there’s also a danger of over-reliance  on the putative economic benefits as sole rationale for following sound conservation-focused land management policies.  One big challenge that must be faced in trying to work our way out of the environmental mess in which we are trapped is in thinking what we should be doing isn’t  going to require draconian restructuring and impose wrenching costs. We cannot just keep bumbling along.

This latest study seems to suggest we can have our conservation cake and eat our economic benefit too, and I think that just might be a bit too good to be true.

Another point the  makes is that economic development – as opposed to leaving land as is – is often heavy subsidized. Such is the case for much farmland conversion, which is often not economically viable without being propped up by public support. So, when the costs of public subsidy are considered, the conservation option is even more attractive.

Or, in a less straightforward situation, where a habitat requires some restoration, the case for dedicating public funds to that goal rather than to farm subsidies might be more compelling. Lead author Bradbury noted in the University of Cambridge press release:

“We need nature-related financial disclosure, and incentives for nature-focused land management, whether through taxes and regulation or subsidies for ecosystem services.”

A couple of further points, also from the Guardian:

This analysis assumes that carbon is properly accounted for, but even without taking into account the value of carbon, natural sites are still more valuable 42% of the time when left as they are. Dr Kelvin Peh, of Southampton University, a co-author of the study, said: “People mainly exploit nature to derive financial benefits. Yet in almost half of the cases we studied, human-induced exploitation subtracted rather than increased economic value.”

The study’s authors are careful to note that their work does not suggest we should abandon all forms of development:

The authors insist that their study should not be used to argue for widespread abandonment of human-dominated landscapes, but said it shows there are lessons to learn about the way we treat natural capital. “We dismiss the flow of services that aren’t easily captured on markets at our peril,” said Bradbury. “As much as I’d like the world to work in a different way, people make economic decisions on the basis of information like this.”

Yet, the bottom line seems clear: policymakers should recognise that conservation produces economic benefits. As per the University of Cambridge press release:

Study co-author Anne-Sophie Pellier from BirdLife International added: “Our results add to evidence that conserving and restoring key biodiversity areas makes sense not only to safeguard our natural heritage, but also by providing wider economic benefits to society.”

Much to mull here; I must reflect on this study further.



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  1. The Rev Kev

    I thought of another case of a good reason for letting nature be. Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and it came out later that one reason was wetlands. New Orleans used to be surrounded by a belt of wetlands which absorbed a lot of the impact of hurricanes as they hit this area. But then the siren song of development was heard and a lot of these wetland were destroyed to be put to commercial use. So when the big one ht in 2005, the city got hit by the full force of that hurricane-


    1. juno mas

      The shoreline wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi River have been lost because of the way the US manages the River. The ancient replenishment of sediments that created those wetlands no longer flow in the same quantity. The Army Corps attempts at recreating sustainable wetlands to mitigate the impact of hurricane are futile.

      By controlling the water flow of the River the large flood pulse of water needed to transmit sediment to the Gulf has been defeated. (The headwater of the Mississippi is in? Minnesota!)

  2. tegnost

    Among some things that wetlands do when we can get ourselves to leave them alone or if they’re just lucky enough to be inconvenient to exploitation are fish stocks and nitrogen fixing. Anadromous fish like salmon that spend time in both fresh and salt water need time to transition between states and wetlands are where they do it. Lot’s of place to hide and things to eat while they grow. Fish stocks that the ocean could use, and protein for us. In the early 1900’s one could catch a 100 lb salmon. That biomass was real value, back in the day…

    This kid actually lived in a house I remodeled in friday harbor and I dredged up this picture for my meeting with the historical society during the permitting.
    Here what you catch now, about the size of the sockeye accompanying the chinook to the dinner table.
    A little over 18 lbs.
    This is a graphic illustration of how right the concept put forth here is.
    The other point on nitrogen fixing is very relevant in our penchant for chemical farming. Numerous plants such as alder trees fix nitrogen which is a major byproduct in fertilizers. Larger stream buffers means more nitrogen fixing and thus less nitrogen polluting the waterways. We in the PNW have a problem in that we want lots of cheap dam produced electricity, and we want orcas and salmon. Probably can’t have both.

    1. Phacops

      Some of our natural areas are damaged by nitrogen fixing plants. The natives in the dry mesic soils of the glacial moraines in Michigan are adapted to nutrient limited life. Autumn Olive, which fixes nitrogen, kills natives and is a particular target of my ire. Getting rid of it is demanding because good technique requires cut stumps treated with Triclopyr in basal oil. I do not want to use broadcast herbicides.

      1. tegnost

        That sounds like a bummer plant.
        I’m talking more about this general process…

        “Nitric acid rain is derived primarily from power plant, car and truck emissions as well as from gases released by fertilizer use. Part of the problem dates back to WWI, when two German scientists invented the Haber–Bosch process, which took nonreactive nitrogen from the air (N2) and converted it into reactive, usable ammonia (NH3). Most of the nitrogen harvested via this process has been used in fertilizers, and the runoff from farms has created dead zones in Chesapeake Bay and at the mouths of the Columbia and Mississippi rivers. Some efforts have been made to regulate the agricultural nitrogen runoff, but atmospheric emissions of agricultural ammonia remain virtually unrestricted.”

        1. tegnost

          One thing to add about native plants and why it’s great that you are trying to re establish them is that if we went back to the land before time as it were the plants would be regulating all of the nitrogen transfer creating a sort of holistic balance as in the case of your native plants relationship with nitrogen. N fixers are the first round in forest succession after disruptions like floods or fire. Here’s something about fixers and succession.
          10 page pdf

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Why get rid of it? Why not treat it as a permaculture resource opportunity? Manage it like a coppice. Cut it off near the ground every few years and chip the stems for garden mulch. Then do it again. And again. And again.

        Meanwhile, it is pumping bio-nitrogen into the soil all around its roots. One of very few non-legume plants who do so.

        Here’s a domestic version upgrade, the Japanese goumi. Bigger fruits. Fruits rich in carcinostatic lycopene, just like tomatoes.

        Plant a few, treat them like coppice-shrubs. Hundreds of usable woody stems every few years.
        They regrow, give hi-nutridense fruit, then in a few years, cut them again. And they are fixing nitrogen the whole time.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Now , if one wanted to kill a particular autumn olive tree in a particular place, could it be slow-killed by girdling the tree below where it started branching out?

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            Because it reproduces so fantastically well, seeds spread by birds in their poo pellets, it might be well to learn what the very young seedlings look like so that they could be pulled out as soon as becoming big enough to be seen.

            The physical effort to pull out one 6-foot-high shrub could pull out thousands of young seedlings. Pull out all the young seedlings from the target area till there are none left that year from the previous year’s seeding. Then spend the rest of that year uprooting some adult plants.

            That’s just an untested theory, but it seems to me that it could work over some years of steady application.

  3. Ghost in the Machine

    While I applaud any effort to highlight the crucial importance of undeveloped habitat, I am sceptical that these types of efforts will amount to much. This seems to be a forced attempt to translate (?) our relationship with natural systems, which we are part of of course, into the terms of the pseudoscientific thinking (economics) that is one of the primary causes of the mess we are in. It seems you could do an analogous analysis for the dispensation of health care. Would my ‘economic services’ be large enough to justify my treatment for an expensive chronic disease?
    While it might provide some nice rhetoric in debates, these types of studies are generally believed by those advocating for conservation and disbelieved by those advocating development. What is the defining, unquestionable experiment?
    These types of arguments also fail in the real world of power. The economic benefits for development are derived from prices in real markets with officially recognized money residing in real bank accounts. This money can be used to buy politicians, ‘create jobs,’ fund think tanks, and purchase academics etc. The price of carbon and all such valuations of ecosystem services are values given theoretical money prices. These exist in no accounts to buy politicians, create jobs, etc. One side has power and the other does not.

    I found this paper to be a good one for highlighting the failure of our economics/market oriented philosophy toward sustainability.
    Understanding what sustainability is not- and what it is

    1. Jason

      Whenever you put a price on something, you immediately change your relationship to it. The bond is substantially weakened. Contingencies are introduced. The relationship is now dispensable, if the terms are right.

      “Price” is the operative word here, but I feel that “value” has similar connotations, even though definitionally it’s different.

      We’ve arrived at a point where seemingly nothing has intrinsic quality. I consciously avoided writing “has intrinsic value” for the reason just stated.

      Economics isn’t alone in belittling life. Science and technology do a bang-up job as well.

      1. Petter

        I read a while back, (can’t remember the source), that John Locke was one of the fathers of the labor theory of value, and that theory was used to move the Cherokees from their lands. The rationale used was that the Cherokees hadn’t “improved” the land.

  4. Phacops

    I live in orchard country (Cherries, Apples, Peaches) on 40 acres that I am working to improve for wildlife. The hard part is managing invasives: Scots Pine, Autumn Olive, Spotted knapweed. We have bears roaming onto the property and have noted where Bobcat have marked their territory. Our freezer always has sufficient venison on hand.

    I have exterminated invasives from around two acres running from the house to a pond and am happy to have a sustainable prairie. In another month the frogs will be waking up and down by the pond they can exceed 90 db. By the house my wife manages a garden for pollinators and warm late afternoons relaxing on the small porch listening to the buzzing is serene. What I also noticed is the large number of parisitoid wasps attracted to that garden. With sandy soil Cicada Killers are not rare, but spiders love to dig burrows too and it is eerie to come out at night shining a light close to the ground to see all the spider eyes reflecting back.

    We need our natural landscapesfor the diversity and services they provide.

    1. deplorado

      Beautiful, thank you for sharing this.
      I wish to set up a life like this for my family.

  5. Darius

    The economic benefits of natural resource preservation are not the strongest arguments in its favor, but the world economic system isn’t set up to adequately consider other types of arguments. In a system obsessed with money, decisions should not be made assuming that natural resource exploitation is all upside. Whatever can be done to introduce completely valid and chronically under-appreciated counterarguments on the value of preservation should be done. Economic arguments always are going to be inadequate because they aren’t the best arguments, but in the current world system, they’re often the only arguments that will be heard.

    Even if they’re not the best arguments, the economic value of natural resource preservation is 100-percent valid, it reflects reality, and it’s usually ignored. Any decisions made ignoring the value of natural resource preservation are distorted decisions. Profits realized from such decisions are, in many ways, theft.

    1. juno mas

      Yes, but most of the environmental damage comes from the current form of industrialization.

  6. John Emerson

    My home town in Mn is dealing with this problem. Someone I know sold their farm to the state so fhat it could be returned to marsh.The whole town is built on a drained marsh and basements often fill with water after rains. The town sits on a lovely 10+ sq.mi. lake which is being rapidly degraded by pollution, mostly fertilizer runoff.

  7. Douglas B. Levene

    Why don’t we leave it to individual landowners to decide how best to optimize the economic value of their land? The only role of the government should be to tax land according to its market value, whatever that happens to be.

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