We present here an interactive spiral device which: 

  • provides a typology of terms, sometimes confusing, used in biodiversity work,
  • introduces two new concepts (Service Providing Protocol and Ecosystem Dis-function) which are vital in understanding the function of the spiral pathway, and
  • demonstrates the ideal pathway from understanding what biodiversity is, to harnessing its power to achieve a more sustainable agriculture.

Within the spiral we point out caveats and potential pitfalls (represented as warning triangles) along the spiral’s path, which further emphasise the complexities involved in making a real difference to future global food security. Throughout this approach, we have selected key, recent references to enable the reader to access the scientific basis of each point in the spiral.

Over the last 50 years, mankind has changed the natural dynamics of the planet at a rate that has not been seen since the last ice age. Due to high fossil-fuel consumption and land use change, humanity faces “wicked” problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss (Steffen 2010; Folke et al. 2011; Bellard et al. 2012; Cardinale et al. 2012; Steffen et al. 2015a). One activity that contributes significantly to these issues is modern conventional agriculture, which has simplified the agroecosystem to maximize short-term economic profit (Tilman 1999, Steffan et al. 2018), while generating very large external costs to human health (Barański et al. 2014) and the environment (Tilman et al. 2001; Wratten et al. 2013; Tubiello et al. 2015; Turner et al. 2016, Pretty et al. 2018). These global-scale problems have been highlighted in recent years by several authors, in prestigious scientific journals (e.g., Foley et al. 2011; Folke and Rockström 2011; Steffen et al. 2011, 2015b; Hooper et al. 2012). However, despite the advances of agroecological research and associated techniques to improve the Sustainability of agriculture worldwide (Koohafkan et al. 2011; Altieri et al. 2015; Pretty et al. 2018, Gurr et al. 2016; Reganold and Wachter 2016), which have the potential to produce enough food for the growing human population without markedly damaging the environment (De Schutter 2010; Reganold and Wachter 2016), there is still largely a lack of implementation of this ecological knowledge in conventional agricultural systems in developed and under-developed countries (Reganold and Wachter 2016).

Even in “western” agriculture, many attempts at enhancing functional biodiversity on farms have failed because they are not founded on sound science (Kleijn and Sutherland 2003) or the ecosystem services they generate are not recognized by governments at local or national levels. For example, goals and policies for Paying for Ecosystem Services (PES) that have value within and beyond the farm have not commonly been applied (Farley and Costanza 2010; Sandhu et al. 2016). Confounding those challenges is the dominance of agrochemical companies with their intensive marketing practices, leading to the high frequency of prophylactic pesticide use, with its wide-ranging negative environmental and economic consequences. For example, recent work on rice pests in South-East Asia has shown that enhancing biological control leads to fewer pesticide applications and higher yields than under a prophylactic pesticide regime (Heong and Hardy 2009, Gurr et al. 2016).

Therefore, the aim of the pathway presented here is to clarify a plethora of poor/overlapping definitions of the processes involved in delivering real agroecological outcomes, based on the premise that appropriate management of biodiversity, and the functions which it delivers, can lead to more sustainable agriculture. We then demonstrate a framework, using a spiral device that can be used globally to investigate, promote and apply ecologically-based techniques that enhance ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, with appropriate pathways to implementation to deliver positive outcomes for farmers and the society as a whole. The need is urgent.


Altieri MA, Nicholls CI, Henao A, Lana MA, 2015. Agroecology and the design of climate change-resilient farming systems. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 35, 869–890.

Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C, 2014. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br. J. Nutr. 112, 794–811.

Bellard C, Bertelsmeier C, Leadley P, Thuiller W, Courchamp F, 2012. Impacts of climate change on the future of biodiversity. Ecol. Lett. 15, 365–377.

Cardinale BJ, Duffy JE, Gonzalez A, Hooper DU, Perrings C, Venail P, Narwani A, Mace GM, Tilman D, Wardle DA, Kinzing AP, Daily GC, Loreau M, Grace JB, Larigualderie A, Srivastava DS, Naeem S, 2012. Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature 486, 59–67.

De Schutter O, 2010. Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. United Nations General Assembly. Available from:

Farley J, Costanza R, 2010. Payments for ecosystem services: From local to global. Ecol. Econ. 69, 2060–2068.

Foley JA, Ramankutty N, Brauman KA, Cassidy ES, Gerber JS, Johnston M, Mueller ND, O’Connell C, Ray DK, West PC, Balzer C, Bennett EM, Carpenter SR, Hill J, Monfreda C, Polasky S, Rockström J, Sheehan J, Siebert S, Tilman D, Zaks DPM, 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478, 337–342.

Folke C, Jansson Å, Rockström J, Olsson P, Carpenter SR, Chapin III FS, Crépin A-S, Daily G, Danell K, Ebbesson J, Elmqvist T, Galaz V, Moberg F, Nilsson M, Österblom H, Ostrom E, Persson Å, Peterson G, Polasky S, Steffen W, Walker B, Westley F, 2011. Reconnecting to the Biosphere. AMBIO A J. Hum. Environ. 40, 719–738.

Folke C, Rockström J, 2011. 3rd Nobel Laureate symposium on global sustainability: Transforming the world in an era of global change. AMBIO A J. Hum. Environ. 40, 717–718.

Gurr GM, Lu Z, Zheng X, Xu H, Zhu P, Chen G, Yao X, Chen J, Zhu Z, Catindig JL, Villareal S, Chien HV, Cuong LQ, Channoo C, Chengwattana N, Lan LP, Hai LH, Chaiwong J, Nicol HI, Perovic DJ, Wratten SD, Heong KL, 2016. Multi-country evidence that crop diversification promotes ecological intensification of agriclture. Nat. Plants 2, 16014.

Heong KL, Hardy B (eds), 2009. Planthoppers: new threats to the sustainability of intensive rice production systems in Asia. Manila: International Rice Research Institute, 460 pp

Hooper DU, Adair EC, Cardinale BJ, Byrnes JEK, Hungate BA, Matulich KL, Gonzalez A, Duffy JE, Gamfeldt L, O’Connor MI, 2012. A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature 486, 105–108.

Kleijn D, Sutherland W, 2003. How effective are European agri-environment schemes in conserving and promoting biodiversity? J. Appl. Ecol. 40, 947–969.

Koohafkan P, Altieri MA, Gimenez EH, 2011. Green agriculture: foundations for biodiverse, resilient and productive agricultural systems. Int. J. Agric. Sustain. 10, 1–13.

Pretty J, Benton TG, Pervez Bharucha Z, Dicks L, Butler Flora C, Godfray C, Goulson D, Hartley S, Lampkin N, Morris C, Pierzynski G, Prasad PVV, Reganold J, Rockström J, Smith P, Thorne P, Wratten S, 2018. Global assessment of agricultural system redesign for sustainable intensification. Nat. Sustain. 1, 441-446. DOI: 10.1038/s41893-018-0114-0

Reganold JP, Wachter JM, 2016. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nat. Plants 2, 15221.

Sandhu H, Wratten S, Porter J, Costanza R, Pretty J, Reganold J, 2016. Mainstreaming ecosystem services into future farming. Solutions, March-April: 40–47.

Steffen W, 2010. Observed trends in Earth System behaviour. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Chang. 1, 428–449.

Steffen W, Broadgate W, Deutsch L, Gaffney O, Ludwig C, 2015a. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The great acceleration. Anthr. Rev. 1–18.

Steffen W, Persson Å, Deutsch L, Zalasiewicz J, Williams M, Richardson K, Crumley C, Crutzen P, Folke C, Gordon L, Molina M, Ramanathan V, Rockström J, Scheffer M, Schellnhuber HJ, Svedin U, 2011. The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship. AMBIO A J. Hum. Environ. 40, 739–761.

Steffen W, Richardson K, Rockström J, Cornell SE, Fetzer I, Bennett EM, Biggs R, Carpenter SR, de Vries W, de Wit CA, Folke C, Gerten D, Heinke J, Mace G, Persson LM, Veerabhadran R, Reyers B, Sörlin S, 2015b. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, 736.

Steffen W, Rockström J, Richardson K,  Lenton TM, Folke C, Liverman D, Summerhayes CP, Barnosky AD, Cornell SE, Crucifix M, Donges JF, Fetzer I, Lade SJ, Scheffer M, Winkelmann R, Schellnhuber HJ 2018. Trajectories of the earth system in the Anthropocene. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8252-8259. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1810141115

Tilman D, 1999. Global environmental impacts of agricultural expansion: The need for sustainable and efficient practices. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 96, 5995–6000.

Tilman D, Fargione J, Wolff B, D’Antonio C, Dobson A, Howarth R, Schindler D, Schlesinger WH, Simberloff D, Swackhamer D, 2001. Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change. Science  292, 281–284.

Tubiello FN, Salvatore M, Ferrara AF, House J, Federici S, Rossi S, Biancalani R, Condor Golec RD, Jacobs H, Flammini A, Prosperi P, Cardenas-Galindo P, Schmidhuber J, Sanz Sanchez MJ, Srivastava N, Smith P, 2015. The contribution of agriculture, forestry and other land use activities to global warming, 1990-2012. Glob. Chang. Biol. 21, 2655–2660.

Turner KG, Anderson S, Gonzalez-Chang M, Costanza R, Courville S, Dalgaard T, Dominati E, Kubiszewski I, Ogilvy S, Porfirio L, Ratna N, Sandhu H, Sutton PC, Svenning J-C, Turner GM, Varennes Y-D, Voinov A, Wratten S, 2016. A review of methods, data, and models to assess changes in the value of ecosystem services from land degradation and restoration. Ecol. Modell. 319, 190–207.

Wratten S, Sandhu H, Cullen R, Costanza R, 2013. Ecosystem services in agricultural and urban landscapes. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.