Agriculture and the Environment: Friends or Foes?
One reason Congress placed the Office under the authority of the USDA is the department’s long-established relationship with private landowners and its record of promoting the sale of the ecosystem services they possess. This USDA/OESM relationship makes sense to many, including Petsonk.
“The government does not have enough money to buy all the land needed, and the USDA has the largest reach to private landowners,” she says.
Political ecologist and University of Kentucky professor Morgan Robertson, however, isn’t so sure.
A self-described “skeptical advocate” of ecosystem markets, he worked with the USDA when he helped write the new wetlands rule. From this experience, he says that the “USDA’s role is pro-farmer and not always environmentally friendly.”
Prioritizing farmers over the environment could shortchange both in the long run, Robertson warns. Environmental assets and markets could be destroyed, leaving farmers without either income stream.
Moreover, says Robertson, environmental science may not be developed sufficiently to enable the OESM to find the correct balance with economic forces.
“I’m concerned, given my previous experience in water quality, that criteria may not be precise enough to be able to see closely enough whether ecosystem services are being provided.”
Getting it right, he added, is essential. “A poorly- run ecosystem services market looks a lot like the next subprime mortgage crises,” he said. For example, look at carbon trading. “If you open up a box of CO2 reduction and it turns out there’s nothing there, then whatever nascent market you have will collapse.”
Courage of a Convert
Collins addresses these concerns with the courage of a convert.
“I was one of the last people that could stand the idea of putting economic value on things I love like wildlife habitat,” says the 25-year veteran of the USDA Forests Services. “This is a place I’ve come to with a lot of thought, reading, internal strife and seeing what’s happening to our environment.”
Placing OESM under the auspices of the USDA, she says, allows it to take advantage of the USDA’s access to farmers and the land and ecosystems they control.
Getting this right, she adds, will take time.
While many environmental market supporters hoped that the creation of OESM could lead to immanent stacking of services on a landscape scale, Collins predicts it will take five years to complete sufficient research and build the infrastructure needed to put this type of comprehensive environmental market in place.
“What it comes down to for me,” Collins says, “is we’ll never have the science perfect; ecosystems are unbelievably complex. But we have no choice. We’re losing services we depend on, so we have to engage the economic sector.”
Alice Kenny is a prize-winning science writer and a regular contributor to Ecosystem Marketplace. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org