Future impacts of agricultural contaminants on ecosystem services in South Asia

This project was part of the ESPA scoping phase, which ran between 2008 and 2011. The resulting proposal for further funding was unsuccessful.

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 therefore combined 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 South Asia and the effects of these impacts on health and wellbeing; and 2) how the inputs, fate and transport of agricultural chemicals could 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 South Asia.

The project explored potential adaptation and mitigation options and gave policy recommendations based on the project results. By the end of the project we established a consortium of leading natural and social scientists who were equipped to address this highly complex problem in the future. 

A recent Environment and Human Health funded study in the UK had predicted that climate change would result in an increase in risks of pathogens and chemicals from agriculture to the health of ecosystems and humans. The magnitude of the increases would be highly dependent on the contaminant type.

Climate change would fuel increase use of pesticides and biocides as farming practices intensified and disease pressures increased. Intensification could also lead to increased levels of occupational contact, increasing potential for zoonoses.

Extreme weather events could mobilise contaminants from soils and faecal matter, potentially increasing their bioavailability. Climate change could 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 was expected that there would be changes in the structure of aquatic communities. Overall these changes could 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 would have knock on effects on health and wellbeing. However, due to the complexity of the problem as well as major knowledge gaps, we were not in a position to quantify the problem which meant that it was not possible to identify whether adaptation and mitigation strategies were required. For example, current knowledge of diffuse pollution of mixes of pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals, in ecosystems in agricultural areas in South Asia was limited and even less was known about the possible effects on the ecosystem services provided by these ecosystems.

Lead Principal Investigator
Organisation: University of York
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: The Energy and Resources Institute
Country: India