Photo: Accounting for nature's goods and services

If it weren't for the wild bees that pollinate the blueberry fields in the Fraser Valley, berry yields would collapse (Credit: BigA888 via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Blueberries have become B.C.'s biggest fruit crop, bringing in close to $100 million in annual sales. That's a lot of money for farmers, pickers, packagers, distributors, and grocery stores. But the essential service provided by one of the hardest workers in the blueberry industry rarely makes it into the account ledgers.

If it weren't for the wild bees that pollinate the blueberry fields in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver and elsewhere, berry yields would collapse. In fact, declines in honey bees and other agricultural pollinators as a result of habitat loss, pesticide use, and other human activities mean that farmers are now paying to replace this critical natural service. In many areas of Canada, farmers are trucking beehives onto their farms to ensure that the once-free pollination services their crops depend on continue.

This is just one illustration of the value of the services provided by nature, and of the costs of poor ecological management. Other examples of the benefits nature provides are numerous. Our forests, for example, ensure that steep slopes remain stable, that flood risks are lower, and that drinking water in places like Vancouver comes out of our taps filtered and clean.

As Ottawa prepares to spend billions to stimulate the economy in its upcoming budget, we'd do well to take a closer look at the real value of the benefits nature provides. Protecting nature can actually result in cost savings for the government since it can act as an important buffer against the full impacts of the current economic downturn. That's partly because the costs to replace natural services that have been degraded or lost due to mismanagement are prohibitively high.

Recognition of the irreplaceable value of ecosystem services and the impact of human development on them is emerging nationally and globally. For instance, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that about 60 per cent of the world's ecosystem services are being used at an unsustainable rate.

Here in Canada, the establishment of "greenbelts" of protected farmland, forests, watersheds, wetlands, and other green spaces around a number of cities has helped to protect essential ecosystem services. The benefits provided by southern Ontario's greenbelt alone have been conservatively estimated at $2.6 billion annually.

But conventional economic thinking ignores the value of nature's services. Thus, the ecological cost of an apple shipped from New Zealand to Canada is not properly included in the pricing when we buy that apple for a loonie. In the same way, when we throw away a cellphone or laptop, the cost of that waste is not accounted for. We need a new accounting system that includes the value of nature's services and the costs of our waste and pollution.

As for the current economic crisis, shovelling more money at failing economic institutions will, at best, only buy us time until the real meltdown hits. A new global economy is emerging from this crisis, and it's a green economy.

Investing in programs to maintain, enhance, and restore ecosystem services that natural areas provide is an effective cost-savings measure and an important element of any green economy. For a fraction of the cost of the massive economic bail-outs, we could protect the natural areas that provide these services, and see greater economic benefits — not to mention improved health and community wellbeing. For example, New York City chose to invest in a program of watershed protection through land purchase, pollution control, and conservation easements, and in doing so saved billions of dollars that would have been otherwise needed for new infrastructure to ensure clean drinking water.

A few small efforts by our federal government could go a long way to ensuring that we continue to receive these benefits from nature and that we don't incur the enormous costs of replacing them if nature is degraded — if they can even be replaced. In its budget, the government should fund stewardship and other incentive programs that reward farmers for conservation efforts. It should also put more money into Canada's network of National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, and it should amend the Income Tax Act to ensure that tax incentives provided under the Ecological Gifts Program apply to donations of all ecologically significant lands.

If we were to include natural services and the environmental costs of our waste and pollution in our economic accounting, we'd have a more realistic economic system. And we'd see that the environment and economy are intertwined. Caring for one is the solution to problems facing the other.

January 16, 2009