Ecological interactions between crops and wild animals frequently result in increases or declines in crop yield. Yet, positive and negative interactions have mostly been treated independently, owing partly to disciplinary silos in ecological and agricultural sciences. We advocate a new integrated research paradigm that explicitly recognizes cost-benefit trade-offs among animal activities and acknowledges that these activities occur within social-ecological contexts. Support for this paradigm is presented in an evidence-based conceptual model structured around five evidence statements highlighting emerging trends applicable to sustainable agriculture. The full range of benefits and costs associated with animal activities in agroecosystems cannot be quantified by focusing on single species groups, crops, or systems. Management of productive agroecosystems should sustain cycles of ecological interactions between crops and wild animals, not isolate these cycles from the system. Advancing this paradigm will therefore require integrated studies that determine net returns of animal activity in agroecosystems.