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Children at risk, says Illinois agricultural economist who helped assess the world’s ecosystem


A University of Illinois agricultural economist who played a role in shaping a recent assessment of the world’s ecosystem and its future believes the study indicates "our children are at risk."

"Those of us who are adults will see some of the effects of current stresses on our ecosystems but it is our children who will pay the price of our drawing down of our natural capital, unless we can find ways to make it sustainable," said Gerald Nelson, a professor in the department of agricultural and consumer economics.

Nelson headed one of several teams assembled to study the state of the world’s ecosystem today and construct scenarios that project 50 to 100 years into the future. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s Synthesis Report is available now and final reports will be published later this year. "This effort is in many ways a follow-on to the research that put the issue of global warming on the table after studies of the 1980s suggested a possible problem," said Nelson.

Nelson noted that this study looked at the environment from a human well-being perspective. In other words, how important are the services from ecosystems for human well-being? Food and clean water are obvious examples of ecosystems services but what benefits do we gain from conservation of biodiversity, marine ecosystems, and changes in climate?

"One of the first documents put out by the study noted that market-based solutions for the challenges facing the world’s ecosystems are important," said Nelson. "Property rights also have a role to play. To address the problems facing the world, we need to find ways to make people realize the costs involved and that they are paying now for these problems. Then, perhaps, people will be more interested in positive strategies to overcome the problems."

And there are problems.

"For instance, we are already at the crisis point with our ocean systems," he said. "We are fishing lower down the food chain. We are catching and keeping species of fish that used to be thrown away because the better species have all but disappeared.

"Coastal and river delta areas around the world are suffering from a number of problems, including hypoxia created by effluents entering the river systems from cities and agriculture. Fresh water supplies are under severe pressure in some parts of the world."

The main frustration for Nelson was the lack of reliable information.

"What I found most shocking was just how bad our information set is on something like the expansion of agricultural land," he said. "One would think that would be relatively easy to trace but when researchers began reporting what we could find out about land-use change between 1980 and 2000 we found all sorts of problems."

The problems stem from limited data collection efforts and incorrect interpretation of data that do exist. One consequence was an early draft map indicating that areas of recent rapid agricultural expansion took place in such unlikely locales as the U.S. northern Great Plains, Ireland, and Java.

"We simply don’t have good information on what I thought would be the easiest changes to document," Nelson said. "It turns out that globally we have an abysmal system to collect data needed to assess the state of the world’s ecosystems.

"That failure is a big problem because if you don’t know what you are doing, especially the bad things, you can’t fix them."

While the study has a global focus, Nelson also said the study highlights some possible future concerns for Illinois.

"Local climate change, following from global climate change, may necessitate changes in cropping patterns, even if farmers stick with corn and soybeans," he said. "Water shortages around the world will mean ’exporting’ Illinois water in the form of agricultural products.

"We may see discontinuities of some kind as ecosystems are put under increasing pressure but it is uncertain at this point what form they will take. We are drawing down a lot of natural capital to support the world’s current lifestyles and this will not be possible indefinitely. The question is: can research and development, and enlightened policy deal with the pressures on ecosystems?"

Bob Sampson | EurekAlert!
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