Embedding ecosystem services in plant protection product regulation

Field margins with wildflowers

Field margins with wildflowers


Samantha Deacon

Samantha Deacon

Principal – Ecosystem Solutions
T: +44 1225 748 420
Lara Alvarez

Lara Alvarez

Manager – Strategic Sustainability Consulting
T: +44 20 7631 5291

Ramboll has developed an ecosystem services approach for CropLife Europe (formerly the European Crop Protection Association) in collaboration with Wageningen University to make decisions on the sustainable use of herbicides in food production. This has provided both manufacturers and regulators with a decision framework that predicts social, economic or environmental trade-offs for the protection of non-target beneficial plants in or around crop fields. 

Flowering annuals, perennials and woody plants – which may grow through a crop, in field margins or in field boundaries (hedgerows) – provide valuable food sources and shelter for pollinators, other invertebrates, birds and mammals. However, pernicious weeds require control to protect crops, yield and farm income. 

This project evaluated several crops grown across Europe and compared a selection of weed management strategies, including herbicide use and mechanical weeding, to seek a balance between crop protection, non-target plant protection and weed control. As the basis of life, plant protection has implications for the whole ecosystem, which although not directly measured, was reflected in the framework.

Including socio-economic considerations and trade-offs

Regulators at European Commission and Member State level are tasked with making decisions on the sustainable use of plant protection products (PPP) following the review of environmental risk assessments by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Historically this decision-making process hasn’t considered benefits and trade-offs between protection goals, and in particular how individual PPPs affect the socio-economics of farming. 

Regulations guide the decision-making process to ensure the protection of the environment, with specific protection goals (SPGs) used to operationalise the legislation into action. A first step towards the definition of these SPGs was proposed by EFSA in 2016 based on the ecosystem services concept, but didn’t incorporate socio-economic considerations, such as employment, or deal with the trade-offs between different ecosystem services.

Developing a consistent framework

The objective of this study was to develop an Impact Assessment Framework that can be applied to the assessment of PPP use and fulfils the requirements of the Better Regulation Guidelines of the European Commission. The aim was to better understand the socio-economic and environmental trade-offs associated with meeting a range of SPGs – indicating different protection levels and weed management practices – and to inform on how to safeguard the competitiveness of Community agriculture.

The ecosystems services and natural capital team at Ramboll worked with Wageningen University on the development of this framework, bringing together a team of plant specialists, ecotoxicologists, economists and agronomists.

Ecosystem services

Ecosystem services (ES) are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human wellbeing. Examples include food and fibre, water purification, flood protection and recreation. The flows of benefits provided by the stocks of natural capital assets can be valued qualitatively, quantitatively and in monetary terms. 

Building on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food programme, Ramboll developed a framework for defining and screening ecosystem services, indicators and metrics for SPGs. Case studies were undertaken to road-test the framework. These case studies were representative of northern, central and southern European countries and accounted for typical environmental settings of crop production in each country.

The studies were carried out collaboratively with the assistance of local agronomists. SPGs were developed for each ecosystem service combined with socio-economic indicators, such as farm revenues, labour, machinery, herbicides and change in land use. Potential sustainable use scenarios included integrated weed management, targeted spraying using low drift nozzles, precision agriculture, mechanical weed removal, and compensatory areas for plant and wildlife conservation (eg flowering field margins).

An innovative framework

The positive and negative consequences associated with the different SPGs – measured using ecosystem services and socio-economic indicators and metrics - were valued qualitatively and/or quantitatively, and compared in order to derive net changes between scenarios in each case study. In this assessment, trade-offs between a change in SPG and a change in farmers practice was demonstrated, which linked back to potentially negative impacts or benefits on yield, employment, weed management costs, or the environment.

The case studies sought to show how changes in crop management practices may be needed to accommodate a new SPG based on a farmer’s agronomic needs (weed pressure), and available tools and finance. The socio-economic consequences of the various SPG options were illustrated to address the costs and benefits of different options to society.

The framework can assess how sustainable each SPG option is for risk assessors, risk managers and farmers.


The framework and case studies illustrated the importance of decision-making that considers the risks and benefits to ecosystem services provided by agricultural land under various crop production and weed management scenarios. This approach allows the consequences of weed control to be predicted and the sustainable use of herbicides (or alternatives) for both the environment and the farming industry.

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