Spring 2013 Seminar Series: David Simpson

David Simpson will present on "And What are the People of the Future Going to Eat? An Example of an Unresolved Issue in Ecosystem Services."

There is great enthusiasm for ecosystem services, but enthusiasm has outstripped analysis. A host of questions remain unanswered, or are answered differently by different people. What are ecosystem services? How valuable are they? To whom are they most valuable? Why, if they are so valuable, are they at risk, or are they? How will an appeal to ecosystem services promote conservation?

In this presentation Simpson will focus on one aspect of that last question. The argument is often made that producers should set aside more land to provide ecosystem services. This could be in their own interest, the argument goes, because natural processes provide substitutes for purchased inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. However, the assumption that ecosystem services and purchased inputs are substitutes implies that a farmer who decides to devote more of her land to the provision of ecosystem services will produce less food. This has a couple of troubling implications. First, food supply would decline when more land is devoted to providing ecosystem services. Second, when one farmer decides to rely more heavily on ecosystem services the effects on food and input prices will give other farmers less incentive to emulate her.

Simpson will consider an illustrative example. Polyface Farm in Augusta County, Virginia, was featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Simpson considers what might happen if other farms were to emulate Polyface Farm’s reliance on ecosystem services in production. When Simpson calibrates a simple model to data for the region, he find that a one percent reduction in the area of land devoted to farming would result in a 4.3 percent reduction in farm output.