SEGH Articles

Ecosystem services to alleviate micronutrient malnutrition in Sub Saharan Africa

20 May 2011
Ecosystem Services concepts have great potential for linking biogeochemistry, health and policy formulation for poverty alleviation.

Mineral malnutrition due to environmental and cultural factors is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).  A multi-national research consortia led by the University of Nottingham (UoN) undertook a pump priming project to explore if Ecosystem Services could provide an effective conceptual framework to link biogeochemical cycles of dietary minerals and poverty.  The project initially focussed on iodine, selenium and zinc in Malawi and Zambia.  Through data integration, feasibility studies, networking and capacity building we addressed three target themes: Biogeochemistry, Nutrition, and Economics.

Biogeochemistry: we developed a new GIS (ArcGIS) framework linking soil and land-use data has been submitted for open-access peer review publication.  New geochemical data for soils and vegetation were incorporated from an aligned project (UoN) and other spatial data (e.g. DFID FarmLime, BGS). Through integration of soil types in GIS, we have found that the population Se intake from maize is typically 6-7 µg Se per day, which represents ~10% of the dietary requirements for Se. Since maize provides the majority of dietary energy to the rural poor of SSA, this study revealed for the first time that chronic Se deficiency is endemic for the majority of the population and is largely influenced by input from soil.

Major knowledge gaps still exist.  Further  sampling, capacity building and data integration activities were therefore planned at a workshop in Lilongwe in September 2010 with multiple government departments and regional academics for future funding application.









Nutrition: a feasibility study was completed to study the spatial variation in I, Se and Zn dietary intake and status  in Malawi as a case study.  The National Health Sciences Research Committee of the Malawi Ministry of health granted ethical approval for dietary and biomarker surveys and intake analyses across several villages.  Importantly, sensitisation visits to the villages and farmers was undertaken by extension services, Ministry of Health and PI's.  Data showing strong geochemical control of intake and status, and these will be submitted for publication later in 2011. 

Economics: a novel Ecosystem Services framework was developed based on: modelling soil-to-diet relationship using mineral / dietary-energy units; food choices and land-use; quantifying relationship between disease burdens and poverty at population levels. Economic analyses were formalised using World Health Organisation Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYS), which incorporated a willingness to pay for intervention.   Such analyses provide a useful policy tool at national and regional scales. 

For example: despite limited data, a pilot analysis estimated that 3,955 healthy life years (DALYS) per 1m population per year are lost each year in Malawi due to Zn deficiency alone, mostly due to infant mortality.  This represents an economic loss to Malawi of >1% GDP per year.  Economic analyses for I, Se and other elements requires more data. 

This work was funded via the Ecosystem Service Poverty Alleviation programme by UK DFID-NERC.

Project partners included: British Geological Survey, University of East Anglia, Genius Consultancy, University of Sabanci, University of Adelaide, University of Otago, University of Malawi, University of Zambia, Ministry of Agriculture & Health (Malawi).

Dr Martin Broadley, University of Nottingham.





Keep up to date

Submit Content

Members can keep in touch with their colleagues through short news and events articles of interest to the SEGH community.

Science in the News

Latest on-line papers from the SEGH journal: Environmental Geochemistry and Health

  • Soil contamination and human health: Part 1—preface 2020-01-27
  • The influence of application of biochar and metal-tolerant bacteria in polluted soil on morpho-physiological and anatomical parameters of spring barley 2020-01-27


    The paper presents the results of the model experiment on spring barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) grown in polluted soil. The influence of separate and combined application of wood biochar and heavy metal-tolerant bacteria on morpho-physiological, anatomical and ultrastructural parameters of H. vulgare L. has been studied. The joint application of biochar and bacteria increased the shoot length by 2.1-fold, root length by 1.7-fold, leaf length by 2.3-fold and dry weight by threefold compared to polluted variant, bringing the plant parameters to the control level. The maximal quantum yield of photosystem II decreased by 8.3% in H. vulgare L. grown in contaminated soil, whereas this decrease was less in biochar (7%), bacteria (6%) and in combined application of bacteria and biochar (5%). As for the transpiration rate, the H. vulgare L. grown in polluted soil has shown a decrease in transpiration rate by 26%. At the same time, the simultaneous application of biochar and bacteria has led to a significant improvement in the transpiration rate (14%). The H. vulgare L. also showed anatomical (integrity of epidermal, vascular bundles, parenchymal and chlorenchymal cells) and ultrastructural (chloroplasts, thylakoid system, plastoglobules, starch grains, mitochondria, peroxisomes, ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles) changes, revealed by light-optical and transmission electron microscopy of leaf sections. The effects were most prominent in H. vulgare L., grown in polluted soil but gradually improved with application of biochar, bacteria and their combination. The use of biochar in combination with metal-tolerant bacteria is an efficient tool for remediation of soils, contaminated with heavy metals. The positive changes caused by the treatment can be consistently traced at all levels of plant organization.

  • Earthworms and vermicompost: an eco-friendly approach for repaying nature’s debt 2020-01-23


    The steady increase in the world’s population has intensified the need for crop productivity, but the majority of the agricultural practices are associated with adverse effects on the environment. Such undesired environmental outcomes may be mitigated by utilizing biological agents as part of farming practice. The present review article summarizes the analyses of the current status of global agriculture and soil scenarios; a description of the role of earthworms and their products as better biofertilizer; and suggestions for the rejuvenation of such technology despite significant lapses and gaps in research and extension programs. By maintaining a close collaboration with farmers, we have recognized a shift in their attitude and renewed optimism toward nature-based green technology. Based on these relations, it is inferred that the application of earthworm-mediated vermitechnology increases sustainable development by strengthening the underlying economic, social and ecological framework.

    Graphic abstract