Putting the ‘function’ in Ecosystem Function

The Early View Alert of the journal Functional Ecology just arrived, highlighting an article in which the authors use the ecological study of coral reefs to highlight the ambiguity around the use of the term ‘function’ in the study of complex, high-diversity ecosystems in the context of rapid ecosystem degradation and global change.

Their proposed definition is thus: function is the movement or storage of energy or material. I’ll admit that I have a tendency to like most definitions posited by authors in peer-reviewed journals – maybe it’s because it’s hard to be critical of people who have a lot more experience and research behind them than I do. Nonetheless, this one strikes me as particularly appealing because it gets at what regenerative agriculture (and permaculture, for that matter) seeks to do: manage flows of energy and materials, sometimes otherwise referred to as resources, e.g. time, energy, water, nutrients, money.

As practitioners we seek to enhance, rebuild, support or maintain natural cycles of these resources, precisely by capturing, storing, and moving them. In the permaculture literature this is made explicit by the emphasis on building relationships between elements. In regenerative agriculture, it may be more heterogeneous and implicit; we might focus on our efforts on enhancing soil, water and nutrient cycles, and there is some debate over which we should concentrate attention. Where do we get the most bang for our buck? If we emphasize capturing and storing soil carbon, does this automatically translate into improved cycling and storage of other nutrients, particularly minerals and micronutrients; or of water? Or vice versa – if we concentrate our efforts on improving the water cycle, do we automatically improve soil carbon capture, and thereby enhance the system’s capacity to use, store, and cycle other nutrients as well?

We might also put regenerative agriculture into the context of a regenerative society or economy, in which case, we could look to building relationships between farmers and their workers, increasing capacity for skills development and self-resiliency, e.g. entrepreneurship. We could look to increasing a region’s capacity for self-governance and internal, localized economy, e.g. rather than outsourcing animal feeds such as wheat, corn, soy and other grains, we develop a local system of pasture leasing and managed grazing that optimizes utilization of local forages. This can also help keep money local through selling meat and other animal products locally; hiring locally; and attracting students and workshop participants that engage with the local economy.

Another way to consider function in terms of capturing and storing energy and materials is from a watershed, foodshed, fibershed, or other large-scale perspective. Capturing water high in the landscape harnesses potential energy that can be used downstream for energy generation, but can also be dispersed with appropriate timing as flood irrigation, spread across a landscape at low energy (slow-moving water) to water trees, for instance, that are themselves able to slow windflow across a landscape while capturing aerial dust, smoke, and even bacteria, attracting beneficial insects and pollinators, sheltering livestock, while capturing, storing and cycling solar energy for use by livestock and wildlife.

More on this definition of function to come

DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.13265


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