Our way of living is making the planet – and us – sick, but by taking a One Health approach to systemic transformations, we have a chance to heal and thrive
The high-carbon, throwaway economic models that built our societies have also caused great harm to the environment and the biodiversity it hosts – the very basics we rely upon to live. Our economic system has made the planet sick. Now it is making us and other species sick.
However, if governments make the political choice to follow a One Health approach as part of broader systemic transformations to end the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, we can heal the planet and ourselves.
The health benefits of the natural world are incalculable. Nature gives us breathable air, drinkable water and productive soils. Nature gives us medicines, traditional and new. Nature provides a buffer against emerging zoonotic diseases. Time spent in nature improves health outcomes across the board, from stress to hyperactivity.
Health in crisis
Every one of these benefits is under threat. I could spend a day listing every threat we are seeing today: growing floods and wildfires; dirty air that clogs the lungs of most people on the planet; emerging diseases, such as Covid-19; plastic and other waste that pollute our rivers, lakes and ocean; people dying prematurely in their millions every year from environmental degradation.
I could spend another day listing what is to come: an extra 9 million premature deaths per year from hunger, 1.5 million from diarrhoea and more than 6 million from air pollution; more diseases jumping from animals to humans; growing antimicrobial resistance that could render large chunks of modern medicine useless; and so much more.
In the face of such a heavy burden, is it any wonder that healthcare systems are on their knees in many countries, with a disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable? The World Bank estimates that air pollution alone costs the welfare system more than $5 trillion every year. We will probably never know the true economic damage of the Covid-19 pandemic, but some conservative estimates peg it at well over $10 trillion. Set against these costs, we would be foolish not to invest in a healthy planet and in strong health systems.
We did see a major landmark in July, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Now we must build on this victory by investing, hard
and fast, in One Health.
One Health is an effort to integrate human, animal, agricultural and ecosystem health to improve outcomes and address the triple planetary crisis. A One Health approach would help prevent disease, reduce costs, improve food safety and security, and save lives. Many potential disease outbreaks would be identified early in animals before spreading into human populations. And spillover risks from zoonotic disease could be reduced by halting habitat conversion and maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems.
The expected benefit of One Health to the global community was estimated in 2022 to be at least $37 billion per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The estimated annual need for expenditure on prevention is less than 10% of these benefits. However, funding for One Health remains weak.
We have seen growing recognition of the One Health approach. New bodies are forming, such as the One Health High Level Expert Panel and the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance. The G7 and G20 have issued declarations backing One Health. The UN Environment Assembly passed a resolution on biodiversity and health, led by African member states. The four organisations of the Quadripartite on One Health – FAO, UNEP, the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health – are working together to mainstream One Health. The Quadripartite has developed a One Health Joint Plan of Action to address many of the challenges I have described.
Use the momentum
Now is the time to use growing political momentum on One Health to promote integrated, multisector and multi-stakeholder initiatives that are backed by adequate structures, governance mechanisms and funding.
Under such initiatives, we can implement actions that ensure strong global stewardship of nature and biodiversity to reduce health risks, coupled with coordinated surveillance and early warning systems on zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance and other emerging health threats. Actions that create incentives to improve sustainable farming practices and sustainable, legal and safe trade in domestic and wild animals. Actions that strengthen tenure and management rights of local communities and Indigenous peoples – because they are the best guardians of nature and hold deep knowledge and skills on health risks.
We are a species in peril, living on a planet in peril. But if we act urgently on the triple planetary crisis, we can save lives and reduce the burden on our healthcare systems. This means decarbonisation. This means backing solutions that work with nature. This means financing adaptation in developing countries. This means a shift to sustainable consumption and production. And this means a rapid shift to One Health.