Technical report 125

Applying an ecosystem services approach to chemical ERA

In this report we follow EFSA’s lead in adopting an ecosystem services approach for deriving protection goals and for informing ERA (EFSA, 2010). We acknowledge that this approach is anthropocentric and that it does not address all 12 principles of the ecosystem approach – focusing on ecological rather than socio-economic principles (Waylen et al, 2014). However, it may be argued that all management decisions, whether establishing protected areas, changing land use or regulating commercial activities, are based on human value systems and are therefore anthropocentric in nature. The difference is more to do with the cost-benefit trade off accepted, rather than a fundamental difference in approach. An ecosystem services approach, however, is not the most appropriate tool to identify conservation effects for specific (iconic) species, although integrating ecosystem services within conservation mechanisms adds value by conserving both nature and other benefits to people.

In order to achieve the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy target and longer-term vision, it is necessary to incorporate ecosystem service thinking into regulatory policy and decision making. It is also necessary to develop tools and approaches for identifying what needs to be protected where, in order to enable the sustainable use of natural capital. Aligning chemical risk assessment to such aims requires the establishment of protection goals and approaches for translating ecotoxicological exposure and effects information into risks for ecosystem service delivery.

In general terms, the ‘ecosystem services approach’ involves establishing “the linkages between ecosystem structures and process functioning … which are understood to … lead directly or indirectly to valued human welfare benefits” (Turner and Daily, 2008). The main perceived benefits of adopting such an approach in ERA include: (i) Improved linkage between ERA and risk management by focusing on protection of entities that matter to people (SCHER/SCENIHR/SCCS, 2013); (ii) Systematic and transparent identification of specific protection goals for ecosystems and biodiversity, which require protection according to new and recently amended EU regulations (Chapter 3); (iii) Quantification of potential environmental impacts, taking into account ecological trade-offs and spatial variation, acknowledging that delivery of all ecosystem services cannot be maximised at the same place and time e.g. food production is maximised in agricultural systems at the expense of some other services (EFSA, 2010); (iv) Quantification of socio-economic impacts and trade‑offs following the valuation of ecosystem services (Hanley and Barbier, 2009).

The utility of the ecosystem services approach for weighing the environmental risks versus the benefits of chemicals is most apparent for plant protection products, since their benefits in terms of enhancing crop yields in smaller, more intensively managed agricultural systems can be assessed directly against their positive and negative impacts on the surrounding landscape. However, the approach also has potential application for other chemical use classes, which offer socio-economic and environmental benefits, including supporting or enhancing ecosystems services, such as biocidal products designed for water purification, pest regulation and invasion resistance and medicinal products used for disease regulation. The main difference for these other chemical use classes is that impacts tend to occur ‘downstream’ in the environment, rather than in proximity to their use, therefore trade-offs between risks and benefits may be more difficult to assess. Nevertheless, the identification of non-target species assemblages or functional groups, which may be vulnerable to chemical exposure, enables specific protection goals to be identified ‘where’ ecosystem services are most likely to be affected, both spatially and ecologically (i.e. at the population, functional group, community or habitat level).

There is an acceptance that protection goals specified in EU legislation are very general
(Hommen et al, 2010) and that more specific protection goals need to be developed in order to guide risk assessment and inform risk management decisions (EFSA, 2010). In 2010, EFSA produced a scientific opinion outlining how an ecosystem services framework could be used to develop specific protection goals for the environmental risk assessment of pesticides (EFSA, 2010; Nienstedt et al, 2012) and more recently, has extended this approach to invasive species, feed additives and genetically modified organisms (EFSA, 2014a, 2015). This growing interest in using ecosystem services to help define and communicate protection goals will inevitably influence chemical regulation. Therefore, it is timely for the chemical industry to engage in this topic in order to determine and influence developments.

Current risk assessment approaches focus on the exposure-response relationship for a limited number of assessment endpoint and species. Whereas some standard species may be directly involved in delivering services of concern (e.g. bees and pollination, earthworm and soil formation; fish and recreational fishing), the link between the biological response measured in a toxicity test and ecosystem service delivery is often unclear. In order to obtain more relevant data for an ecosystem services evaluation it is necessary to: (1) identify the habitats potentially exposed to the chemical of interest; (2) identify ecosystems services provided by those habitats that are potentially affected by the chemical of interest; (3) identify
ecosystem components (individual species, functional groups etc.) driving the services potentially affected
(i.e. service-providing units, SPU); (4) identify how service provider attributes (e.g. behaviour, biomass, function etc.) relate to ecosystem service provision; (5) design studies to assess the toxicity of the chemical to SPUs and their key attributes (Maltby, 2013).

Ecosystem services are derived from the complex interactions between biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems. No single species, group of species or individual ecosystem can provide the full suite of ecosystem services and therefore the application of an ecosystem services framework to risk assessment and risk management requires consideration of multiple species across multiple ecosystems. Most ecosystems can provide a number of different services, several of which may be potentially affected by chemical exposure. Furthermore ecosystem services are not independent and there may be synergies and trade-offs between them. The risk assessment should therefore provide information on a number of landscape-scale scenarios, including possible mitigations, which the risk manager can then consider when deciding which ecosystem services to protect, where and when.