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Science on the Pulse: Top 10 ecosystem service and resilience reads of 2014 

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

1700 articles were published in 2014 with “ecosystem service” or “resilience” in their title and that is only the tip of the ice-berg! (>7000 landed under a subject search). This literature spans fields of fundamental ecology, geography, economics, political science, climate adaptation, disaster risk management, and food system sustainability.

Reading list. Photo: John Carleton Reading list. Photo: John Carleton on Flickr

What is the best way to navigate through the mountain of publications that emerged from 2014 to find the gems that should absolutely be on your reading list? For those looking to brush up on their knowledge on these topics we thought we’d share with you the top ten reads as identified by a polling of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems' (WLE) Ecosystem Services and Resilience (ESR) members.

Top Ten Ecosystem Service and Resilience Reads of 2014

1. Mace, G.M. 2014. Whose conservation? Science. 345: 1558-1560

Topping our list is the very readable three page Science Perspectives piece on “Whose Conservation” by Georgina Mace. Mace eloquently captures many of the ideas and challenges faced by conservation biologists and practitioners working at the interface of conservation and development.  She proposes that conservation has undergone four major movements in the latter half of the past century until today. The first movement was “nature for itself” focusing on wilderness and species protection in the face of rampant development. Next, the 1970’s brought with it the notion of “nature despite people” and an increasing awareness of human threats to biodiversity, until the rise of the ecosystem services, or “nature for people”, concept in the 1990’s.

The latter forms the basis of WLE’s ESR framework, which focuses on how conservation of ecosystems can contribute to poverty reduction and sustainable development.  The framework has been critiqued for having ecosystems and people as distinct elements.  We have defended this since the definition of ecosystem services rests fundamentally on the two distinct pillars: the benefits of nature to people.

Mace, however, proposes that the ecosystem service concept is too utilitarian focused and misses the other dimensions of conservation. She suggests that the fourth and present major conservation approach is on “people and nature”, with foundations in theoretical ecology, resource economics and social science.

We think there is a critical need for CGIAR to develop a strategy for acknowledging where conservation should take priority for the benefit of people and nature.

We’ve reflected on this when visiting CGIAR landscapes, such as Tonle Sap or the Barotse floodplain, both internationally recognized biosphere reserves; and we think there is a critical need for CGIAR to develop a strategy for acknowledging where conservation should take priority for the benefit of people and nature.

Mace concludes that a key challenge for applying the multidimensional concepts of “people and nature” lies in moving away from the much more tangible metrics of “nature for itself”. 2015 will need to herald usable and meaningful metrics that can be used to identify the benefits needed and received by people from conservation. This challenge is made all the more critical given that the release of the Sustainable Development Goals will happen this September.

2. Cumming et al. 2014 Implications of agricultural transitions and urbanisation for ecosystem services. Nature. 515(6): 50-57

As feedbacks from ecosystem services to human well-being become weaker with the industrialisation of agriculture, how can we achieve sustainable resource use? This article discusses the effect of urbanisation, densification and changes in technology on sustainable use of ecosystem services. It explores how increasingly long supply chains are creating a disconnect between socio-economic activities, well-being, and ecological impacts.

The authors present a framework for characterising transitions in agricultural production in terms of ecosystem service supply. We recommend this for anyone interested in sustainable agricultural production (hopefully all of our readers!).

3. Robertson, G. et al. 2014. Farming for Ecosystem Services: An Ecological Approach to Production Agriculture. BioScience

The authors propose a comprehensive, yet clear and simple, scientific framework to highlight the implications of transitioning socio-ecological systems from rural to urban systems. Through three well-presented examples, each covering different socio-ecological states, the authors indicate the role of population growth, population density and loss of biodiversity on long term degradation and the role of institutions and actions to promote conservation that minimize society’s ecological footprint.

4. Adams, W.M. 2014. The value of valuing nature. Science. 346: 549-551.

You will enjoy reading this article and will likely share the author’s central argument that: “the Ecosystem Services approach is not itself a conservation measure”. Adams highlights the importance (and challenges) of understanding linkages between human wellbeing, ecosystem services and ecosystem processes, trade-offs between ecosystem services, management for ecosystem services, and accessibility and market based incentives that will foster synergies between conservation and service provision.

5. Estrada-Carmona et al. 2014. Integrated landscape management for agriculture, rural livelihoods, and ecosystem conservation: An assessment of experience from Latin America and the Caribbean. Landscape and Urban Planning. 129:1-11

Ok, some bias here since this is one of our own and the result of a collaborative effort of the Landscapes for People Food and Nature Initiative. However, we hope that the careful documenting and reporting on how more than 104 integrated landscape management initiatives across Latin America and the Caribbean are implementing approaches to ensure landscape multifunctionality (conservation, production, and livelihood improvement).

You will particularly learn about the motivations, type of investments, perceived outcomes and major challenges the initiatives are facing for improving, altogether, sustainable agricultural production, ecosystem conservation, human livelihoods, and institutional planning and coordination.  For more information, read recent blog post here.

6. Fischer et al. 2014. Place, case and process: Applying ecology to sustainable development. Basic and Applied Ecology. 15:187-193

We think most readers will agree that finding ways for scientists to overcome the challenges of engaging with real-world problems in sustainable development is critical to CGIAR’s work, and not often an easy task.  Fischer and colleagues propose three practical steps that ecologists can take to engage with other disciplines and stakeholders in their research based on selectively choosing the empirical contact, the unit of analysis, and the processes used to foster communication and integration of research among mixed audiences.

This article is particularly well-suited to scientists working in development; read it to get ideas on how you can strengthen and shape your research projects so that they have an impact on practical development problems.

7. Loos, J. et al. 2014. Putting meaning back into “sustainable intensification”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

What does “sustainable” intensification really mean?  This engaging article argues that the current use of the term “sustainable intensification” inadequately addresses issues of equitable distribution and procedural justice, and that these issues are fundamental to sustainable agricultural production.  The authors point out that, without adequately incorporating these elements, sustainable intensification of agriculture cannot claim to contribute to improving food security.

Suitable for a wide readership, this article shows why addressing social and economic issues is critical for effective application of an ecosystem-based approaches to agriculture in sustainable development.

8. Poppy, G. M. et al. 2014. Achieving food and environmental security : new approaches to close the gap. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 369.

Poppy and colleagues highlight that pursuing food-related development goals in isolation can negatively impact progress towards other development goals, and integrated solutions are needed. Drawing on Rockstrom’s theory of planetary boundaries (see interview here) and Raworth’s concept of a safe operating space for humanity, this article sets out the key challenges and opportunities for science to facilitate the transition to agricultural systems that deliver food security.

9. Speranza, C.I. et al. 2014. An indicator framework for assessing livelihood resilience. Global Environmental Change. 28:109-119.

This article introduces the concept of “livelihood resilience” to outline a framework for exploring how much livelihoods enable households to adapt to and benefit from change. The authors provide a useful review of definitions of resilience and of approaches to analysing a household’s capacity to maintain or enhance livelihoods in times of stress, before introducing a framework for characterising livelihood resilience through measures of buffer capacity, self-organisation and capacity for learning.

10. Tilman, D. & Clark, M. 2014. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature. 515:518-522.

Without a doubt, global attention is returning to agriculture, not only with big questions of how to feed 9 billion, but more importantly, some would argue, with a renewed recognition that the food systems of the 21st century must consider integrated impacts on environmental health and human health. There was a surge of papers and initiatives on this topic in 2014, however Tilman and Clark’s paper summarized it best.

Comparing the Mediterranean, pescetarian, and vegetarian diets, this paper demonstrates the critical contributions of integrated approaches to how diets and food production systems can meet environmental and human health targets. What we appreciate most about this paper is that you really do not need to read too far between the lines to understand how fundamental agriculture is to achieving the multiple dimensions of sustainable human development – or a safe and just operating space for humanity.

Did we miss any?

We hope that you’ve enjoyed our list. If there are papers that we have missed that you would highlight, let us know in the comments section below – we’re also already accepting nominations for 2015 and will highlight these papers through our listserve. WLE Ecosystem Services and Resilience (ESR) members include scientists and practitioners working around the globe on ecosystem services and/or resilience and with a keen interest in sustainable development. To join to the ESR listserve or to find out more about CGIAR research on Ecosystem Services and Resilience in development, contact the ESR core theme Research Assistant, Sarah Jones (s.jones@cgiar.org).


This is a great reading list and a nice summary of some of the latest thinking. I'll certainly be trying to track down these papers. Unfortunately, most people (me included) won't be able to access them directly because they're behind paywalls. Oh, well.

One issue they didn't mention in their introduction is confusion around the definition of "resilience". It seems intuitively straightforward but there are a dozen different definitions of resilience and stability and some of them appear contradictory. I'm working on resilience and stability in a particular grassland ecosystem. I'm pretty sure that "non-resilient and unstable" doesn't describe my study area. But I can't decide whether my data indicate that the system is resilient and stable, resilient but unstable, or stable but not resilient.

So, I'll have to do a lot more reading to get a handle on the differences between resilience and stability. I think part of the problem is that they are very much relative concepts. A system can be "unstable" compared to a similar system (say, a badly-managed grassland versus an adjacent well-managed grassland) but would be considered "stable" by, say, an ecologist from an arid ecosystem accustomed to wild fluctuations in conditions.

Thank you for including two of the papers from our research group! That's great news for us. Our papers are available at the following website:
peisajesustenabile.wordpress.com --
that's Loos et al, and Fischer et al. in the list above. You can download them there as full papers. Cheers,

Our pleasure Joern, thanks for the great work which we are using to guide our own work in agriculture and development.

I am working as sennior officer for Biodiversity Conservation Agency. I am very interested in the books on the field of science managment.