4.3.2 Provisioning services

Course subject(s) Module 4. |C| Business model

Provisioning services

Water, food, wood and other goods are some of the material benefits people obtain from ecosystems. These benefits we call provisioning services. Many provisioning services are traded in markets. However, in many regions, rural households also directly depend on provisioning services for their livelihoods. In this case, the services value may be much more important than is reflected in the prices they fetch on local markets.


Virtually all ecosystems provide the conditions for growing, collecting, hunting or harvesting food.

The world currently produces enough to feed the global population of 7 billion people. Today, the world produces 17% more food per person than 30 years ago, with the rate of production having increased faster than the population over the last two decades. Of all ecosystem services, food production is one that has shown consistently upward trend in recent history. Nevertheless, it is now recognized that the gains in agricultural production and productivity were often accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base jeopardizing its productive potential in the future. Ecosystem approaches to agriculture intensification have emerged over the past two decades as farmers began to adopt sustainable practices, critical to realizing the benefits of ecosystem services while reducing the negative impact from agricultural activities.

Livestock provides nearly one-third of humanity’s protein intake. Animal products play a very important role in human nutrition, especially for micronutrients. Ruminant livestock can digest cellulose in grass and convert it to human edible proteins which is the only way to produce food on wide rangeland areas that are not suitable to grow crops. However, other livestock production systems are based on cereals which can lead to a competition between food for humans and feed for livestock.

The capture and culture of marine and freshwater fish contribute a significant amount of animal protein to the diets of people worldwide. It is estimated that between 15-20% of all animal proteins come from aquatic animals. Fish is highly nutritious and serves as a valuable supplement in diets lacking essential vitamins and minerals – and it a unique source of long chain omega-3 fats. The sector also derives crucial cash earnings and employment from the food services. Aquaculture is one of the fastest-growing food producing sectors and provides half of all fish for human consumption.

The non-timber forest products also contribute to a large part of the nutrition in developing countries.

Raw material

Ecosystems provide a great diversity of materials including wood, biofuels, and fibers from wild or cultivated plant and animal species.

Examples of raw material are biofuel, fibers and wood. Livestock provide different types of raw material such as wool, mohair, skin (these are also fibres) and co products used in the feed and food industries (bones, blood).

Examples of raw materials linked to capture fisheries and aquaculture include the cultivation of micro algae and fish waste for biofuels, mangroves for building materials and smoking fish, and shells for jewellery and other cultural artefacts.

Fresh water

No water, no life. Ecosystems play a vital role in providing the flow and storage of fresh water.

Crops are heavily dependent on freshwater as almost 60% of all the world’s freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses. Improved cropping systems can also improve the water retention capacity of the soil and enhance water provision.

Livestock are an important user of freshwater resources. This water footprint mostly comes from the feed they consume. It is estimated that livestock use 15% of global agriculture water. On the other hand, grasslands are a significant ecosystem in many of the world’s important watersheds. Grassland cover can capture 50-80% more water compared to uncovered soils, reducing risks of drought and floods. Traditional grazing pastures are some of the most water productive of the land uses.

Sustainable fisheries management and aquaculture development can support freshwater provision from aquatic ecosystems. Aquaculture, when protecting existing ponds for example, can be a steward of freshwater resources. Sustainable management of freshwaters is key and including fish and fisheries management in water management frameworks is needed to sustain this service.

Forests help maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and provide reliable supplies of clean freshwater. Forests do not only filter and clean water, they also help prevent soil erosion, reduce sedimentation in reservoirs and mitigate the risks of landslides, mudflows and floods, all problems that can threaten downstream water supplies. And while forests themselves consume water, they also improve infiltration rates, thereby helping recharge underground aquifers. Loss of forest cover can adversely affect freshwater supplies.


Natural ecosystems provide a variety of plants and mushrooms which offer effective cures for many kinds of health problems. They are used in popular and traditional medicine, and for developing pharmaceuticals.

Medicinal plants or part of them, have been collected and used throughout the millennia by populations, for their medicinal properties. All over the world, in both developing and developed countries, there is an ever increasing interest in medicinal and aromatic plants regarding their use, development, cultivation, conservation, sustainable use, etcetera. Today, plant-derived medicines are the basis for medical treatment in many countries. These treatments being traditional or considered as more “modern”.

Grasslands host a wide variety of medicinal plants. In one study in the Philippine, 58 species have been identified. Grasslands degradation will lead to the loss of these natural medicines.

A variety of aquatic plants and animals are used in traditional medicine, e.g. sea horse, star fish, sea urchin and sea cucumber. Algae are a rich source of beta carotene and other carotenoids used widely in pharmaceuticals and can be harvested from the wild or from aquaculture ponds. Pollution, habitat destruction and overfishing are threatening these plants and animals. Sustainable management is needed to keep this medicine reservoir alive.

Key medicines such as Quinine, which effectively fights malaria, come from trees. Traditional knowledge can teach us a lot about other possible natural remedy as long as the fragile balance of the forest ecosystems is kept.

Creative Commons License
Nature Based Metropolitan Solutions by TU Delft OpenCourseWare is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://online-learning.tudelft.nl/courses/nature-based-metropolitan-solutions/.
Back to top