Future impacts of agricultural contaminants on ecosystem services in South Asia

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment


A recent Environment and Human Health funded study in the UK has predicted that climate change will result in an increase in risks of pathogens and chemicals from agriculture to the health of ecosystems and humans. The magnitude of the increases will be highly dependent on the contaminant type. Climate change will fuel increased use of pesticides and biocides as farming practices intensify and disease pressures increase. Intensification may also lead to increased levels of occupational contact, increasing potential for zoonoses. Extreme weather events will mobilise contaminants from soils and faecal matter, potentially increasing their bioavailability. Climate change will also affect the fate and transport of pathogens and chemical contaminants in agricultural systems. Increases in temperature and changes in moisture content are likely to reduce the persistence of chemicals and pathogens while changes in hydrological characteristics are likely to increase the potential for contaminants to be transported to water supplies. Alongside these changes, it is expected that there will be changes in the structure of aquatic communities. Overall these changes may result in a reduction in the long term supply of the ecosystem services needed for food production (e.g. soil for growing crops, pollination and pest control for food production, wild food and fish production) and the provision of safe water for drinking. These impacts on ecosystem services will have knock on effects on health and wellbeing. However, due to the complexity of the problem as well as major knowledge gaps, we are not yet in a position to quantify the problem which means that it is not currently possible to identify whether adaptation and mitigation strategies are required. For example, current knowledge of diffuse pollution of mixes of pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals, in ecosystems in agricultural areas in S. Asia is limited and even less is known about the possible effects on the ecosystem services provided by these ecosystems. An improved understanding of the risks of losing ecosystem services associated with the current and future use of agricultural chemicals is a key component towards attaining food and water security for all. This project will therefore combine a desk-based review with an expert workshop in order to begin to explore: 1) the current impacts of agricultural contaminants on ecosystem services in S. Asia and the effects of these impacts on health and wellbeing; and 2) how the inputs, fate and transport of agricultural chemicals might change in the future due to climatic and socio-economic changes, the implications of these changes on key ecosystem services and the knock-on effects on the health and well being of the population in S. Asia. The project will also explore potential adaptation and mitigation options and give policy recommendations based on the project results. By the end of the project we aim to have established a consortium of leading natural and social scientists who are equipped to address this highly complex problem in the future. We will apply to future ESPA calls to support the work of the consortium and will also explore other avenues of funding.


10 25 50
Description This aim of this pilot project was to explore 1) how the inputs, fate and transport of agricultural chemicals might change in the future due to climatic and socio-economic changes; and 2) the implications of these changes on key ecosystem services and the knock-on effects on the health and well being of the population in S. Asia. The project also considered potential adaptation and mitigation options. At the core of the project was a one-week expert workshop held in New Delhi and involving scientists from the UK, Netherlands, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.

Based on the workshop discussions, it was concluded that while chemicals can bring short-term benefits in terms of increased production and income they can also can result in long term costs in terms of negative impacts on human health and the ecosystem services supporting livelihoods. It is of special concern to consider impacts of pollution on the livelihood opportunities of the poorest parts of the population.

The study identified an increasing body of evidence that demonstrates that chemical contaminants in agricultural ecosystems from a number of different sources can have a negative effect on a range of ecosystem services including: food and fodder provision; pollination; water cycling and regulation; nutrient cycling; support for human, animal and plant health; contaminant regulation; and spiritual and cultural services. The degradation of these ecosystem services by chemical contaminants can exacerbate poverty in a variety of ways. For example, contamination of food can lower market values reducing income for farmers, effects on soil functioning can lead to reductions in crop productivity, and adverse effects on human health, arising from environmental exposure to chemicals, can reduce an individual's capacity to work.

The study concluded that the current knowledge on the links between chemical contamination and poverty is not coherent or joined up. It was apparent from the workshop discussions that the implications of current chemical contamination on poverty are not understood and that this knowledge gap should be addressed before considering how things could change in the future (the initial aim of the project).
Exploitation Route While the project was only a pilot scale study, the recommendations should be of interest to international development departments and agencies (e.g. DFID), global health agencies (e.g. WHO) and the chemicals industry (e.g. agrichemical producers) This study was a pilot project. Workshop participants agreed that there is an urgent need to understand the potential effects of chemical contaminants on the delivery of ecosystem services in S. Asian agricultural systems and the links between these effects and poverty. To gain this understanding an integrated approach is needed that involves both the natural and social sciences and multiple stakeholders. By identifying and implementing pathways to mitigate contaminant impacts on ecosystems now, poverty levels will be reduced and this reduction will be maintained into the future.
Sectors Chemicals,Environment

Description This was a pilot project to scope out the area. Unfortunately, a significant work programme is needed before the concepts developed in the pilot study could be used to inform different stakeholder groups.