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Earthworms (L. terrestris) have dug tunnels through yellow earth and subsequently deposited casts in the top litter layer, thus mixing minerals and plant debris. Photo taken of a laboratory terrarium. © INRA, FAYOLLE Léon

Soil ecotoxicology and agroecology: partners in progress

Soil ecotoxicology: a rapidly evolving field

Ecotoxicology is the study of how chemical compounds interact with the environment and affect the living world. It is an interdisciplinary field of research whose boundaries have expanded thanks to recent discoveries.

By Catherine Foucaud-Scheunemann, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 07/31/2014
Published on 07/03/2014

Ecotoxicology is the study of the effects of chemical pollutants at different biological scales; for instance, these pollutants can affect entire ecosystems. When examining soils, ecotoxicology needs to account for their complexity, their environmental functions, and how they are affected by societal and agricultural practices. This is not a straightforward task.

A recently emerged interdisciplinary field

Ecotoxicology was born in the 20th century, at the end of the 1960s, when people realized that the ecosphere was experiencing wide-spread and serious pollution. There was a concomitant increase in the amount of research addressing pollution-related problems in natural systems.

It is a field of research situated at the interface between toxicology and ecology. Like toxicology, ecotoxicology involves the study of toxic substances and seeks to quantify their effects on individual organs and whole organisms. Ecotoxicologists also help determine the toxicity of chemical compounds before they are used or put on the market.  Like ecology, ecotoxicology is interested in the relationships among organisms, their activities, and their habitats.

However, while toxicology restricts itself to the study of the pathways by which toxic compounds affect organisms, ecotoxicology takes a broader perspective: it is interested in the sources and pathways of contamination and seeks to measure the impact of chemical pollutants at multiple scales, from individuals to populations to ecosystems, while taking into account the dynamic equilibria present at all these levels.

Ecotoxicology and agroecology: moving forward together

In the beginning, it was assumed that toxic chemicals had universal biotic effects. As a result, a suite of monospecific bioassays was developed to evaluate the impacts of chemical pollutants.

Ecotoxicology then became part of the commercialization process, informing the procedures used to evaluate certain chemicals before they were put on the market. As a result, ecotoxicological work lead to the establishment of guidelines related to chemical trials and the development of risk assessment metrics (e.g., EC50, NOEC).

At present, it is necessary to take into account the impact as well as the fate of chemical pollutants and to evaluate the relevance and interpretation of biomarkers and bioindicators at different scales.

Furthermore, ecotoxicological research is moving forward thanks to advances in the field of agroecology. In particular, proper environmental evaluations of risks are being conducted: they take into account how societal and agricultural practices mediate the exposure and sensitivity of organisms to toxic compounds present in soils.

These changes have been taking place over the last several years in INRA’s organization and research programs and have lead to new lines of inquiry, novel tools, and renewed structures.