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General Commentary ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Ecol. Evol. | doi: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00446

Response: “Commentary: Is the focus on “ecosystems” a liability in the research on nature’s services?”

  • 1AgroParisTech Institut des Sciences et Industries du Vivant et de L'environnement, France
  • 2Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, France
  • 3INRA Centre Versailles-Grignon, France

In their recent commentary, Borrero-Echeverry and Rincon (2019) argue that some of the points made in our earlier article (Baveye et al., 2019) are “counterproductive, not only to the research on nature’s services, but also to the ongoing struggle to shift to a more sustainable development.” We welcome the opportunity that their commentary affords to clarify our perspective. Apparently, whether it be because of a problem of language or because of our writing style, which may be slightly more literary than has become habitual in scientific publications, Borrero-Echeverry and Rincon (2019) do not seem to have understood what we were trying to explain. It might therefore be useful to reformulate our rationale in simpler terms in order for it to be easier to grasp.
Regardless of preferences in writing style, it seems that it would be hard to interpret what we wrote originally, including the use of the expression “nature’s services”, to be an argument in favor of a “paradigm shift in terminology toward ‘nature’s contributions to people’ (NCP)”, as Borrero-Echeverry and Rincon (2019) write. Not only do we describe the NCP as a “controversial notion,” but we also point out that differences between the NCP and the ecosystem services framework (ESF) “remain very fuzzy” at this stage, in part because the concept of ecosystem continues to constitute the foundation upon which the NCP are predicated, as is the case also with the ESF. That reliance on ecosystems, against which we raise three different objections, was precisely the focus of our original article (Baveye et al., 2019). We made it clear that our proposal to address these objections cannot be reduced just to a question of terminology. What is at stake is how to overcome operationally the set of limitations that stem directly from the use of the concept, and not merely the term, of ecosystem.
The fist key issue we raised in Baveye et al. (2018) is that, in virtually all of the literature on “ecosystem services”, the strict understanding of an ecosystem as “a community made up of living organisms and nonliving components such as air, water and mineral soil” (e.g., Smith and Smith, 2012), explicitly requires the presence of something living, be it a plant, animal, or microorganism. This constraint is problematic in the context of the preservation of important natural resources because some of the benefits that humans derive from nature do not result directly from the presence or activity of any living being (other of course than the humans at the receiving end). For example, when a soil provides physical support to a building or a parking lot, or serves as raw material to construct houses, its initial biodiversity, or indeed whether or not it hosts any living organism at all, is of little relevance. In this context, we feel that societal debates about the sustainable use(s) of nature by human populations would likely be severely hindered if, from the onset, some of the possible uses cannot be mentioned explicitly simply because no living organism is involved (see, e.g., further discussion in Baveye et al., 2016). Along these lines, various authors have recently found it necessary to disaggregate ecosystems into biotic, abiotic, and anthropogenic components when dealing with cultural services (Blicharska et al., 2017 ; Motiejunaité et al., 2019). The same approach should probably be adopted to deal with provisioning and regulating services.
The second key point is that reliance on the concept of ecosystem may cause serious difficulties for the measurement of some of nature’s services to humans. For example, the measurement of any physical process occurring in a system requires in general the ability to monitor closely what enters the system and what goes out of it. Nature’s services are no exception in this respect. In a forest ecosystem, this condition may be satisfied for the service of timber production, but would be hard to satisfy in practice for other services, like groundwater recharge, or filtration of contaminants, if the limits of the forest do not coincide with those of a watershed or catchment. In this respect, it would definitely help if in the research on nature’s services, we could focus from the start on regions of space where the measurement of the largest number of services would be feasible. Borrero-Echeverry and Rincon (2019) consider our concern about the measurement of nature’s services to be “moot.” However, in the last couple of years, a steadily growing number of researchers has come to recognize that measurements represent the Achille’s heel of the ESF, and that, if progress is not made in this area in the near future, including in terms of cultural services, it may prove operationally difficult to account for nature’s services explicitly in the sustainable management of our environment (Grêt-Regamey et al., 2014; Andersson et al., 2015; Baveye et al., 2016; Baveye, 2017).
The last argument against linking the concept of ecosystem too closely to an analysis of nature’s services, is that stakeholders tend not to associate the concept readily with their day-to-day reality. Whether or not a field or cadastral unit that a farmer manages contains an ecosystem, the fact is that in the vast majority of cases the term “ecosystem” does not carry much meaning for him/her. Therefore, in order for the communication with this person to be most effective, it makes sense to try to stick with terms that are more directly relevant to his/her reality. That does not mean that this farmer should consider only his field and not the wider environment of which he/she and his/her farm are an integral, intimately-connected part. On the contrary, such a wider viewpoint is essential to prevent environmental deterioration (e.g., surface water eutrophication resulting from poor fertilizer management) and to achieve sustainable practices. But we disagree with Borrero-Echeverry and Rincon’s (2019) viewpoint that this broader perspective imperatively requires a discourse centered on ecosystems. It does not.

Keywords: ecosystem services, Soil, cultural services, Nature's services, Environmental Management

Received: 12 Jul 2019; Accepted: 04 Nov 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Baveye, Chalhoub, CHOQUET and Montagne. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Philippe C. Baveye, AgroParisTech Institut des Sciences et Industries du Vivant et de L'environnement, Paris, France, baveye.rpi@gmail.com