We humans are absolutely dependent on the natural world for our survival on this planet. Natural systems provide us with such life-sustaining products as clean water, fertile soil, control of pests, clean air, a livable climate and most of our food.

Because these 'ecosystem services' are happening all around us all the time, we tend to take them for granted and so we have virtually no appreciation of their value.

So, what is a piece of Australia worth? This is the key question of a new research initiative called 'The nature and value of Australia's ecosystem services'. A group of CSIRO scientists and economists have joined forces with representatives from rural communities, industries, government agencies and universities to identify and value a whole range of services offered to society by natural (including agricultural) systems.

We don't have accurate estimates of the value of these ecosystem services to the country, but there are many examples to show that they are worth a lot more than most people think.

Pollination worth billions

Take pollination as an example. Free pollination services are delivered by a range of insects and birds, and are essential for the successful production of a vast range of Australia's fruit, vegetable and grain crops. A decade ago, it was calculated that the annual benefit of pollination services to Australian agriculture was $600 million - $1.2 billion. Luckily, up to 50 per cent of pollination in Australia could be carried out by native insects.

Not so in the USA where the number of native pollinators has declined so dramatically that honeybees are now vital to agricultural production. Unfortunately, this dependence is heading for crisis as habitat clearing, pesticide use and disease have resulted in a decline in honeybee numbers at the rate of 5 per cent per year in some areas.

Some economists calculate the cost to American agriculture of the decrease in pollination services at around $5 billion per year. Failure to value the service provided to agriculture by pollinators has led to serious agricultural and economic problems.

In order to make meaningful decisions about managing our natural resources, it is essential that we improve our understanding about what's going on in our ecosystems, identify how society benefits from the services that are provided, and begin to develop an economic framework to assess these benefits.

The first step in our three-year project has been to find four case study regions: agricultural land in Victoria, grazing land in western NSW, rainforest and agricultural land in Queensland, and a forested catchment providing water for an urban centre (location yet to be decided).

We are now making an inventory of the types and value of ecosystem services in these regions by talking to the experts - local landholders, state and local governments, land management agencies, conservation and community groups.

Unsung heroes

Already it is clear that we underestimate the role of key elements of the natural system - unsung heroes like native insects, soil microorganisms and fungi - in pollinating crops and native plants, controlling pests, purifying water and disposing of waste products.

Once we've worked out a list of goods and services provided by the environment, we will need to identify the beneficiaries and the impact of different management practices. This information will then form part of economic analyses we hope will have a positive impact on decisions made about natural resource management.

In particular, we would like to see it lead to fairer sharing of the costs and benefits of good environmental management, and to more rewards for land stewardship by farmers.

This is the first time in the world that such an extensive assessment of nature's worth has been undertaken. It gives Australia a chance to take the lead in smart environmental management.

Region North