How much is an earthworm worth?

After years of paying little attention, both farmers and EU politicians have started listening in earnest to the research findings. The trick is simply to communicate on the recipient’s terms. Professor of Biology Katarina Hedlund and her colleagues have begun putting a price on nature’s own capital.

Looking after the environment and preserving biodiversity is often considered to be unprofitable financially. However, in the Soil Services research project, the researchers have tried to measure the benefits in monetary terms. This means highlighting the economic value of nature’s own capital using ‘ecosystem services’.

“As a researcher, I have worked on biodiversity for many years. In the past it has been difficult to reach out, but now we are getting our message across”, says Katarina Hedlund, Professor at the Department of Biology.

For the past four years she has been the coordinator of the EU-funded research project Soil Services. The project started in 2008 and will end in February 2012. The aim has been to deliver results for how biodiversity in the soil changes with both intensive farming and climate change. The target group, i.e. those who will use the research findings, has comprised a broad spectrum of people in both Sweden and other European countries: individual farmers, farming advisers, experts at the Swedish Board of Agriculture and EU politicians.

Katarina Hedlund observes that the concept of ecosystem services, and their economic value, makes people listen. In agriculture there are plenty of ecosystem services that can make the earth more fertile and increase harvests. For example, valuable microorganisms live in the soil where they can release nitrogen which provides nutrition to the crops. Earthworms also tunnel through the soil, creating better structure and aerating the soil.

“It is not that simple that we can say what an earthworm is worth, but we can place a figure on the organic content of the soil as a type of currency for ecosystem services”, says Katarina Hedlund.

The higher the level of organic matter in the soil, the less need there is to add fertiliser to the fields. This could mean up to 25 per cent less nitrogen that needs to be added to achieve the same harvest, emphasises Katarina Hedlund. In this way, farmers can save money through reduced fertiliser costs. Moreover, society can save money through reduced costs associated with nitrogen leaching from fields into watercourses and the sea, which is an environmental problem that causes algal blooms and oxygen depletion in the sea.

As part of the Soil Services project, the researchers have produced models that can calculate the value of the soil’s ecosystem services, for example in a hectare of wheat. In addition, the models can make clear the economic benefits of agricultural methods such as ploughing back unharvested crops, sowing cover crops so that the fields do not lie bare and using correct crop rotation. In the long term, correct soil care can produce tangible changes in economic terms.

“Using the models we can show how farmers can earn more money in ten years’ time if they do this or that. In farming there is often a more short-term perspective”, says Katarina Hedlund.

A further goal is for the findings from the project to be incorporated into the EU’s agricultural subsidy calculations. Katarina Hedlund was in Brussels recently for a round table discussion at the European Parliament with the aim of influencing the design of agricultural support measures so that they have the desired effect.

“The Commission is trying to push through a Soil Directive, but some countries are stopping it in the Parliament”, she explains.

The greatest challenges in communicating the research results from Soil Services have been daring to release details and uncertainties behind the results, starting to use the models and actually speaking out about possible future scenarios, as well as moving from pure basic research to an overall perspective on how to farm in an economically sustainable way.

“We are led to believe that it is the actual research findings that are of interest, but we must meet the users on a level that is concerned with the issues in which they are interested”, says Katarina Hedlund.

Lena Björk Blixt

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