Environmental risk assessment (ERA) is an important part of maintaining a healthy environment and conserving biodiversity. ERA has become indispensable to regulatory decision-making, and in this context ERA evaluates the potential adverse effects of regulated stressors – such as genetically modified plants, pesticides and feed additives – on the environment. What can be done to advance environmental risk assessment? Scientists speaking at the break-out session on ERA at EFSA’s scientific conference in October 2015 shared their ideas and suggested potential avenues to take.
Better framing of ERA
Setting the scene, Alan Gray of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK presented an overview of significant recent advances and remaining challenges in the field. As ERA has moved from a science-led to a policy-led approach, a solid problem formulation has become the important first step in the assessment process. This concept has led to a better framing of ERA, addressing fewer but more substantive questions.
Identifying specific and operational protection goals
What do we want to protect? Where do we want to protect it? And for how long? The answers seem easy: everything, everywhere, forever. But, as Lorraine Maltby of the University of Sheffield, UK, pointed out these answers are not tenable. She said that we need to develop a transparent and robust framework to help us decide what to protect and where. In other words, we need specific and operational protection goals.
Using ‘ecosystem services’ to help protect biodiversity
‘Ecosystem services’ is a term used to describe the many ways people benefit from the environment. Glenn Suter of the Environmental Protection Agency, USA, explained that using this term has helped to make environmental protection more relevant to people. It has also helped to communicate better with political decision-makers and stakeholders on ecological risks. In his talk he used case studies to illustrate the concept of ecosystem services and how it can be used to preserve biodiversity.
Answer the questions that need answering
Robust environmental risk assessment needs to start with a good problem formulation. This first step includes the identification of policy goals, scope and endpoints of an assessment. Problem formulation clarifies what is known, which information is missing and which scientific uncertainties may limit the risk assessment. Joe Smith, an independent advisor to the Australian government, said that a good problem formulation helps risk assessors and regulators to make sure “they are answering the questions that need to be answered”.
What do we need for good environmental risk assessment?
Jörg Romeis, of the Institute for Sustainability Sciences in Switzerland, had one answer: We need reliable studies producing reliable data. The studies designed to test risk hypotheses for ERA should be rigorous, objective and compliant with relevant quality standards. This increases confidence in the results and underpins the certainty of the conclusions drawn. High-quality studies facilitate reproducibility and increase acceptance, which in turn benefits regulatory authorities in their work.
Making ERA more contextual
The call to make environmental risk assessment more contextual reverberated throughout the session. The scope of ERAs should be broader and they should consider more realistic scenarios. What does this mean? Typically, ERAs address specific regulated products in isolation. But this does not account for the multitude of stressors present in diverse landscapes. The last speaker of the session, Jeff Pettis of the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory, USA, used bees as a case study to illustrate how multiple stressors can be assessed.