We need to think carefully about the consequences of putting a financial value on the services that nature provides for us, argues food and faming think tank the Food Ethics Council in the summer 2011 edition of Food Ethics magazine.

Across the world, and in the UK, whole ecosystems are being degraded, and ecosystem services that we take for granted are being lost. These services include pollination, soil fertility, clean water, carbon cycles; all critical to food and farming and the survival of humankind.

On June 2nd the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) will be published. The NEA is the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the financial and other benefits it provides to our society and economy.

The NEA’s approach to putting a money value on nature’s seems sensible, given that governments and policy makers operate within a global economy that is committed to driving growth on a planet with biophysical limits.

But in reality, instead of encouraging us to protect those services, putting a price tag on them may simply turn them into commodities to be bought, sold and traded on the international finance markets. This has already happened with CO2 emissions, with little benefit to the climate, and cordons off parts of our shared environment under private ownership and control.

Dr Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council says:

“At best, applying economic thinking to ‘ecosystem services’ gives us pause to think about how important nature is to humanity. But at worst it perpetuates the dangerous conceit that our own place in ecosystems is more important than any other.”

Dr Kate Rawles, Food Ethics Council member and philosopher says:

“Nature is not just nice to have. It’s a necessity. We need biodiversity like we need water and food – but that’s not the only reason to protect it. The language of ecosystem services should only ever be a ladder to a wiser worldview. We need to step up fast. And then we need to kick the ladder away.”

Many traditional economists argue that assigning economic values to nature’s functions raises awareness of what biodiversity is and why we need it, which is crucial to inspire support for its protection.

But others argue that it’s a step in the wrong direction. It removes us from nature, and allows us to value biodiversity only in so far as it is important to us. These extrinsic values only equip us to deal with one issue at a time, like drought, or pollution. Unless and until we value nature for its own sake, we will only be able to tackle the symptoms, not the causes of biodiversity loss.

This shift in understanding our relationship with nature would mean a move from intensive animal rearing systems to farms that allow animals to express their own behaviours; and from intensive monocultures growing cash crops to small-scale mixed farms that support local ecosystems.

For more arguments in favour of and against valuing nature, read ‘Banking biodiversity: valuing or devaluing nature?’ the summer edition of Food Ethics magazine.

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Notes to Editors

1. The Food Ethics Council works for a food system that is fair and sustainable for people and the planet. We provide advice and conduct research on ethical issues in food and farming.

2. Food Ethics is a quarterly publication whose contributors include cabinet ministers, EU politicians, leading environmental and social justice campaigners, business leaders and academics. You can see back issues at www.foodethicscouncil.org/magazine