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Ecosystem Services in Agriculture

When most people think of farm animals, they
think of cows or pigs or chickens that provide humans with meat, milk, or eggs. Yet even at farms that only grow plants, animals
are important. Creatures one would normally take for granted
provide a wide array of economic and environmental benefits to the farm and the wider landscape. These benefits are known as ecosystem services. Consider the growing wheat. All plants need water, but it can’t always
reach the roots way down in the soil. Yet as the humble earthworm burrows through
the ground, it creates channels for water to flow. The wheat is also plagued by pest insects
like aphids, which drain the sap from its stems and reduce its growth. Yet when the predatory lady beetle makes a
meal of them, the wheat is spared and the farmer is kept from needing to apply as many
pesticides. Meanwhile, the farm’s apple trees are blooming,
but it takes a bee to turn the flowers into red delicious fruit come autumn. As it probes the flower for nectar, the bee’s
hairy body gets dusted with pollen, which it can then transfer to other flowers, fertilizing
them and allowing the fruit to grow. In the fall, the apples are picked and the
wheat is harvested. The farm has much to thank its animals, but
there remains one more service to perform. As the leaves fall from the apple trees, animals
like this isopod as well as numerous microbes too small to see will break them down and
release the nutrients locked up inside, returning them to the soil so that the trees can keep
growing year after year. These are just a few of the many ways ecological
communities contribute to human society. Preserving and managing these and other ecosystem
services is an important part of good environmental stewardship.


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