Ecological goods and services (EGS) are the natural outputs and processes that create health, economic or social benefits. In British Columbia (BC), as in many other jurisdictions, agricultural operations tend to occupy portions of the landscape both high in biodiversity and supporting key ecological functions. Agricultural lands have therefore become a focus for the development of payment for ecological services (PES) programs. These are used as a means to reward private-land stewardship that restores or maintains EGS.

The Ecological Services Initiative (ESI) was established in 2009 (later rebranded as “Farmland Advantage”) to demonstrate and test the concept of PES schemes for agricultural producers. As a next step to advance support of EGS from agricultural lands, the British Columbia Agricultural Research and Development Corporation (ARDCorp) undertook a strategic review of the ESI. This review explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC. And looked specifically at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the approach the Ecological Service Initiative / Farmland Advantage is advocating.

Agriculture and Ecological Goods and Services

  • Both agricultural production and other ecological goods and services are very important to society.
  • Agriculture and the environment are inseparably linked.
  • Agri-environmental relationships are complex and difficult to fully quantify.

Payment and Rewards for Ecological Services

  • Agricultural activity creates and maintains EGS for society, but payment for EGS is not universal and is complicated by confusion over economic value and intrinsic value.
  • PES need to be viewed in the context of other options (incentives or regulations) to achieve the same stewardship goals.
  • PES must link a willingness to provide (supply) and a willingness to pay (demand) for EGS.
  • Auctions and trading schemes are the most economically efficient program delivery methods.
  • Elements common to successful PES programs include focusing on solving existing agri-environmental issues, setting measurable goals, securing funding and working collaboratively.

Ecological Services in the BC Context

  • BC agricultural production and agri-environmental issues are highly regionalized.
  • The highest priority issues relate to soil and water, wildlife habitat and species at risk.
  • Many fundamental questions about agricultural land use in relation to EGS need to be answered to inform the development of PES programs in BC.

Public and Stakeholder Support

  • The perceived need for PES programs is not being driven by public sentiment.
  • There is no stakeholder consensus on the appropriate mix of using regulation, compensation and other incentives to facilitate positive agri-environmental outcomes.
  • Stakeholders do not want new programs established if it means cuts to existing support, and many note the need for better coordination between different programs.
  • Many producers are opposed to preservation (removing land permanently from agricultural production) in favour of conservation (employing sustainable management) to achieve environmental goals.
  • Viable PES funding options in BC are very limited.

BC Agri-Environmental Programs

Successful agri-environmental support programs are established in BC, including a long-running regional PES program in Delta (Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust).

Other long-standing programs such as the Beneficial Management Practices Program have employed cost-share funding to great success in incentivizing private-sector investment in on-farm stewardship and the creation and support of ecological goods and services.

Ecological Services Initiative (Farmland Advantage)

  • ESI activity has focused on trying to build partnerships, creating awareness, demonstration and distributing an arbitrary cash payment to participating producers.
  • Literature reviews and limited technical and economic support tools have been created.
  • The ESI believes it has a PES model that is ready for a wider application to fulfill its vision of “…a sustainable paid ecosystem services program that supports ecological integrity and food security in Canada.”

SWOT Analysis of the Ecological Services Initiative

The ESI’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats can be summarized as the following:

Strengths

  1. Linkages thematically to other initiatives;
  2. Collaborative approach;
  3. Elevated awareness of PES issues in BC;
  4. Established partnerships; and,
  5. Articulates a willingness to adapt.

Weaknesses

  1. Unrealistic vision directed towards developing their vision of a PES model for Canada;
  2. Lack of a well-documented rationale, tied to strong, incremental needs for this type of program in BC, restricting the ability to secure funding, or to engage stakeholder and public support;
  3. Communications are weak about the program goals, activities and outcomes;
  4. Insufficient focus on solving a critical local or regional agri-environmental issues;
  5. Limited beneficial outcomes from demonstrations and pilot project work;
  6. Limited utility of ecological and economic protocol development work;
  7. Important baseline information is lacking to justify the widespread use of PES support in BC;
  8. Limited program linkages for new PES support to work incrementally with other initiatives and support programs;
  9. Limited linkages to regional or sub-regional planning;
  10. Limited involvement outside of private land agricultural stakeholders;
  11. Lack of organizational capacity to carry out development work; and,
  12. No viable funding options for program delivery have been established.

Opportunities

  1. Learn from established agri-environmental support programs in BC (e.g. Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, Environmental Farm Plan Program, Beneficial Management Practices Program);
  2. Links to agricultural planning can be established (Group EFP process or Agricultural Area Plans to address watershed-level and regional issues);
  3. Development funding is available;
  4. Expertise is accessible to carry out development activities; and,
  5. Public engagement can be used to improve backing for EGS support programs.

Threats

  1. No viable delivery funding is available;
  2. Not enough compensation funds available to meaningfully address all of the stewardship needs on agricultural lands;
  3. No public policy framework in place;
  4. No comprehensive land use planning framework to address agri-environmental issues;
  5. PES options may alienate some stakeholders;
  6. Provincial food security could decrease if compensation is primarily directed to removing agricultural land from production;
  7. Key land use information may not be developed; and,
  8. Development partnerships may not be created around common goals.

Program Gaps of the Ecological Services Initiative

The ESI has a multitude of program gaps that preclude a provincial or multi-regional delivery program and restrict its ability to support program development. These include:

  • Unrealistic program vision and goals that need to be redefined in terms of viable program outcomes;
  • Existing strategic and communications plans need revision and substantial expansion;
  • Detailed operational plans must be developed for each pilot project;
  • Regional development partnerships need to be strengthened around a common vision and realistic goals;
  • Program staffing, finance, strategic, communications and technical roles are not defined. Distribution of authority is not formally defined and decisions are not well documented;
  • ESI does not have internal audit or compliance provisions;
  • ESI has no internal capacity to manage financial and human resources support, compliance with regulatory requirements or audit procedures;
  • Most of the operational technical procedures need to be developed, formally adopted or refined;
  • ESI has no internal capacity to manage or deliver technical support;
  • Data sharing provisions need significant improvements.
  • Program reporting procedures need substantial improvement.
  • Significant delivery gaps exist for education, extension of technical information and outreach activities to the broad base of agricultural stakeholders.

Recommendations

In view of the its strengths and weaknesses, the following recommendations are provided to help the ESI realize opportunities and avoid program threats:

1. Support resources should be focused on fulfilling a four to five year development cycle with the goal of creating compelling cases for regional PES delivery programs. A provincial or multi-regional delivery program is not feasible and not recommended for the near to mid-term.

2. Development and delivery of payment for ecological services support programs should adopt and follow a set of guiding principles reflecting the strengths and opportunities for EGS support in BC and reflecting the diversity of stakeholder values and priorities:

  • Local;
  • Producer – led;
  • Collaborative;
  • Merit-based;
  • Incremental;
  • Accessible;
  • Voluntary;
  • Science-based;
  • Efficient;
  • Transparent; and,
  • Practical.

3. The ESI should fulfill a vision of facilitating and supporting the creation of sustainable local and regional PES programs established to address their issues and needs.

4. New and existing ESI pilot projects should set issue-specific strategic goals, and should validate their projects with a formal needs assessments.

5. Reorganize the ESI to a council structure for decision making supporting local and regional pilot projects with paid administrative, project development and communications support:

  • Agricultural Ecosystem Services Development Council for decision making;
  • Facilitator, directed by Council and providing project development and communications support to the local and regional initiatives;
  • Administrator, directed by Council and providing administrative support to the local and regional initiatives and Council; and,
  • Ex-officio advisors to Council.

6. Revise and expand the ESI communications strategy to improve awareness, education, information exchange and stakeholder outreach outcomes. Individual strategies should be developed for:

  • Internal communications and reporting; and,
  • Pilot project and demonstration project communications;
  • Public awareness and stakeholder outreach; and,
  • Agricultural producer education.

Communications delivery should be carried out by the ESI Facilitator, except producer education which should be delivered through other support programs.

7. Conduct social, economic and BMP research, primarily by synthesizing pertinent information and retrospective analyses of existing programs and activities in BC.

The priority research topics to be addressed by this work are as follows:

  • Social research to assess BMP adoption rates;
  • Retention levels of BMPs;
  • Identification of real production costs and benefits;
  • Trial exploration of the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of distributing BMP support; and,
  • Survey work to document educational outcomes.

8. Support the creation, updating or expansion of geographic data sets and tools related to key EGS inventories and agricultural land use, condition and trends.

9. Work collaboratively with outside research and development programs to develop and refine BMPs that create co-benefits for agricultural and conservation goals (e.g. agroforestry systems).

10. Engage potential delivery funders in the development process.

11. Explore alternative means to fund EGS support activities on agricultural lands through existing programs and initiatives.

12. Build and maintain meaningful partnerships and linkages to third-party resources, protocols and information networks for program development.

More Information

Access the review here.