Ecosystem services and why they are vital for humans

Nature offers ecosystem services that are essential for life. But human activity is putting them at risk. Below, we explain why they are so important.

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When we talk about the services we need for living, what do we think of? Water, electricity, gas, etc., for which we receive a bill every month. Think, however, about services that are indispensable for humanity and the rest of biodiversity – and that are free as well! We call these ecosystem services, given to us by nature, for nothing in exchange.


What you’ll find in this article


Ecosystems, where life happens

To begin with, let’s define exactly what is an ecosystem. It’s a biological systems made up by a community of living beings and the natural environment in which they live, called a system because all the parts interact and affect one another.

Earth is covered with such spaces, inexhaustible sources of biodiversity, their importance in the order of global habitat undeniable. The ecosystem of a stream, for example, consists of water, fish and plantlife, down to the smallest microorganisms too tiny for the eye to see.

The interactions occurring in these ecosystems generate ‘services’ that we use on a daily basis and benefit all of us. In the case of the stream, the plant life has a role in retaining sediment, affecting the biochemical cycles and serving as food for other living beings.


What are ecosystem services?

Ecosystems render services that are essential for the quality and sustainability of the lives of people.

In this sense, ecosystem services are benefits that ecosystems bring human beings, so they can fulfil themselves in all respects. Thus the importance of widening the focus of caring for the planet from sustainability to sustainable regeneration.


There are four kinds of services, according to the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystems Assessment:


  • Supply services: the most tangible and direct, relating to products obtained from ecosystems, including: food, and; raw materials such as wood, freshwater, biochemicals, fibers, etc., resources we use to make and produce all kinds of materials, objects and technology.
  • Regulation services: benefits obtained directly from ecosystems without going through a transformation process, e.g. pollination, soil fertility, climate regulation and nutrient cycles. Ecosystems protect us against natural disasters, regulate temperature and purify water and air.
  • Cultural services: ecosystem services provide the basis for the development of our cultures. Nature inspires us artistically and scientifically. It give us our cultural identity and awakens feelings of belonging, to the land we inhabit. It also gives us touristic and recreational opportunities. Natural heritage, traditional knowledge and customs are very important in creating a feeling of belonging. As such, we identify with our surroundings.
  • Support services: services necessary for the production of other ecosystem services. Thanks to the action of thousands of organisms, for example, fertile soils emerge, essential for cultivating food and the health of indigenous ecosystems. These ecosystems, in turn, contribute to the generation of other services and materials.


“Ecosystem services are benefits that ecosystems bring human beings, so they can fulfil themselves in all respects”


The importance of ecosystem services

Generally ecosystem services don’t get the attention they deserve. We take it as a given that they are there for us, come what may. But human activity is intervening decisively in many of them, degrading the benefits they offer us, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.

This is what is happening with the climate. To illustrate it, let’s look at a very simple case: forests.

These extensive populations of trees and other vegetation ensure the availability of clean water and maintain river basins. Trees also give shade and help reduce ground temperatures. They support air quality by capturing CO2, a driver of global warming, through photosynthesis.


“Human activity is intervening decisively in many ecosystem services, degrading the benefits they offer us”


Trees have a determining role in reducing the impact of natural disasters such as flooding. Deforestation and desertification are two closely linked phenomena that endanger food supplies for millions of people.
Forests have literally millions of effects. Imagine what would happen if bees disappeared?

Pesticides and deforestation endanger bees, too - the very insects vital for pollinating plants.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) says there are 100 species of crops that provide 90% of the food worldwide, and 71 of them are pollinated by bees.

In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop types and 4,000 plant varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.

It is incredible what nature offers us without asking for anything back. Sadly, it seems we are not aware of the importance of these ecosystem services.

We interact constantly with them: by modifying just a few of their components, we can impact the whole network of ecosystems. Ecosystem services are irreplaceable, including by technology; losing them would put us at serious risk.

Ecosystem welfare is fundamental to assuring that we can access all of these services. Knowing and conserving our biodiversity is akin to treasuring and protecting our own existence.