THE OPPORTUNITY COST OF BIODIVERSITY LOSS ON THE SWISS PLATEAU
Measures to maintain the biodiversity on the Swiss plateau would generate 136 millions CHF of benefit for the society. It is urgent that we realize that the sharp decline in biodiversity in Switzerland is impacting our economy.
A recent report from the FOEN (the Swiss environment agency) on the status of biodiversity in Switzerland observed that almost 50% of habitats are threatened and that 36% of all species assessed are categorized as threatened on the Red Lists (IUCN). The report mostly summarized observations while making no reference to potential solutions. Switzerland is not recognized as a country neglecting biodiversity, although the latter is nevertheless in sharp decline.
Speaking of solutions, I explored the potential to apply changes at a landscape level on the Swiss plateau (the region in between the Alps and the Jura, which are two mountain chains), in particular the change of agricultural practices towards tree-based intercropping systems. This system uses trees species planted in between fields, similar to the UK or French “bocage” typical agriculture landscape. It has the advantage of protecting the biodiversity in agricultural landscapes while providing additional ecosystem services including (Dupras and Reveret 2015):
Soil nutriments control
Biological pest control
Climate regulation (carbon storage)
Using a conservative assumption for the potential conversion of the agricultural land on the Swiss plateau, the benefit for society would reach 136 million CHF per year. Alternatively, we can turn the result around and realize that we are losing 136 million CHF each year due to the externalities of our agricultural system on the Swiss plateau. As a comparison, the current national subsidy for ecological compensation (which is an obligation for farmers) reaches a sum of approximately 84 million CHF for the Swiss plateau and 140 million CHF for all of Switzerland.
A change to this system of compensation would therefore benefit the biodiversity while at the same time paying for itself. However, the breakdown of the benefits indicates a reduced agricultural net production, while greatly improving non-marketed services. This situation of shared benefit between the communities, authorities, farmers and society in general is not easy manage Tools involving investments in ecosystem services will need to be discussed among the different stakeholders and a solution will need to be negotiated. The most important ecosystem services that would be improved are: water quality and filtration, air quality, climate regulation and soil quality (representing 90% of the non-marketed benefits).
This estimation is based on a small and limited study using data from the Swiss Office of Statistics, as well as on a specific study of tree-based intercropping systems published in Dupras and Reveret 2015. I transferred, with some adaptations, the results of the study carried out in Québec to Swiss conditions.
Although the results display many uncertainties, the objective is to raise awareness and inform decision makers that landscape or system thinking in biodiversity can lead to increased benefits for society. We lost in ten years (2003-2013) the equivalent of two times the area occupied by the town of Lausanne on the Swiss plateau (in term of agricultural land). It is urgent to act to maintain the quality of the biodiversity within the remaining areas. The implementation of ecological compensation was an important milestone for Switzerland, however a better integration of this measure within the landscape is necessary to tackle biodiversity losses while maintaining our economic system.