Using problem formulation for fit‐for‐purpose pre‐market environmental risk assessments of regulated stressors

biodiversity, ecosystem services, GMO, hypothesis testing, pathway to harm, pesticides,protection goals
First published in the EFSA Journal
8 July 2019
1 April 2019
Special Issue

The views or positions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent in legal terms the official position of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or inaccuracies that may appear. This article does not disclose any confidential information or data. Mention of proprietary products is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not constitute an endorsement or a recommendation by EFSA for their use.


Pre‐market/prospective environmental risk assessments (ERAs) contribute to risk analyses performed to facilitate decisions about the market introduction of regulated stressors. Robust ERAs begin with an explicit problem formulation, which involves among other steps: (1) formally devising plausible pathways to harm that describe how the deployment of a regulated stressor could be harmful; (2) formulating risk hypotheses about the likelihood and severity of such events; (3) identifying the information that will be useful to test the risk hypotheses; and (4) developing a plan to acquire new data for hypothesis testing should tests with existing information be insufficient for decision‐making. Here, we apply problem formulation to the assessment of possible adverse effects of RNA interference‐based insecticidal genetically modified (GM) plants, GM growth hormone coho salmon, gene drive‐modified mosquitoes and classical biological weed control agents on non‐target organisms in a prospective manner, and of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees in a retrospective manner. In addition, specific considerations for the problem formulation for the ERA of nanomaterials and for landscape‐scale population‐level ERAs are given. We argue that applying problem formulation to ERA maximises the usefulness of ERA studies for decision‐making, through an iterative process, because: (1) harm is defined explicitly from the start; (2) the construction of risk hypotheses is guided by policy rather than an exhaustive attempt to address any possible differences; (3) existing information is used effectively; (4) new data are collected with a clear purpose; (5) risk is characterised against well‐defined criteria of hypothesis corroboration or falsification; and (6) risk assessment conclusions can be communicated clearly. However, problem formulation is still often hindered by the absence of clear policy goals and decision‐making criteria (e.g. definition of protection goals and what constitutes harm) that are needed to guide the interpretation of scientific information. We therefore advocate further dialogue between risk assessors and risk managers to clarify how ERAs can address policy goals and decision‐making criteria. Ideally, this dialogue should take place for all classes of regulated stressors, as this can promote alignment and consistency on the desired level of protection and maximum tolerable impacts across regulated stressors.

yann.devos [at]
EFSA Journal 2019;17(S1):e170708