The symbiosis of biodiversity and health

The symbiosis of biodiversity and health

Biodiversity loss compromises our natural systems, making us more vulnerable to disease emergence. As we rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis, there is tremendous opportunity to integrate biodiversity protection into policies that guide recovery plans – protecting us all

The global community is living through one of the worst pandemics in recent history. Increasingly, the links between biodiversity loss and the ability of society to prevent and respond to global pandemics are garnering attention, not only in the scientific community, but in the policy arena as well.

Biodiversity is the variety of life on Earth, in all its forms and all its interactions. We cannot live without biodiversity – it feeds us, houses us, cures us and provides us with the air we breathe. Biodiversity is the foundation of human life. As genetic and species diversity is lost and ecosystems are degraded, the complexity of overall natural systems can be compromised, making them more vulnerable, and potentially creating new opportunities for disease emergence and poor health outcomes in both humans and other species.

Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems limit the emergence and spread of disease and stabilise the climate. Biodiversity is also an important source of genetic resources for the development of many treatments, vaccines and a range of biotechnology products used in both modern and traditional medicines, as well as in agriculture and industry.

Biodiversity in decline

Unfortunately, biodiversity is currently declining globally at unprecedented rates in human history, and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, affecting human health worldwide in a variety
of ways.

According to the recently released global assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, three-quarters of the land-based environment and about two-thirds of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. At the same time, over a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Combined, these and other drivers, including climate change, are jeopardising the health, livelihoods and well-being of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Biodiversity loss also has a huge impact on our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% (35 out of 44) of the assessed targets of the SDGs related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land (SDGs 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 13, 14 and 15).

As the international community starts to rebuild from the current COVID-19 crisis, we have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that the protection of biodiversity is integrated into policies that will guide economic and development recovery plans. That is why thinking about prevention, sustainability and intergenerational equity is so important, even in the midst of this crisis.

Drawing on the numerous potential benefits of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use to human health, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, at its 14th meeting in 2018, addressed the importance of mainstreaming biodiversity considerations into the health sector.

Shared experiences from parties confirmed that although national efforts aimed at cross-sectoral integration were increasing, significant efforts were still needed: to raise public awareness of the health benefits of biodiversity conservation; to scale up financing for and national implementation of cross-sectoral plans and policies that focus on prevention; to develop mutually supportive legislative, fiscal and financial instruments; and to support mutually reinforcing behavioural measures aimed at biodiversity conservation and improved health.

The One Health approach

Broad alliances between the health- and biodiversity-related sectors at the national level, as well as support for local communities, partnerships with the private sector and increased cooperation between the World Health Organization, the secretariat of the convention and governments, were all considered important to achieving policy coherence and the transformational change required to meet the greatest environmental, global health and development challenges of our age.

Furthermore, building on the findings of the State of Knowledge Review on biodiversity and health, jointly produced by the CBD and the WHO, the Conference of the Parties to the CBD adopted a biodiversity inclusive One Health guidance at its 14th meeting. The One Health approach has been increasingly recognised and adopted by international organisations, including the WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).

The One Health approach and other integrated approaches recognise that human health is intimately connected to the health of animals and our shared environment, as well as socio-economic and political factors. At the local, national and global scale, the implementation of One Health approaches has led to improved outbreak responses, generated critical data, contributed to the discovery of new pathogens, informed disease control programmes to reduce burden of diseases and enhanced preparedness for infectious diseases.

Discussions on the new transformative post-2020 global biodiversity framework, to be adopted next year in China by the parties to the CBD with contributions from all stakeholders and partners, have highlighted the linkages between biodiversity and health. We expect these issues will be given even greater prominence in the coming months, including further promotion and implementation of the One Health approach, with a view to reducing the risk of future pandemics.

It is not too late to change our course. We can, in the words of United Nations secretary-general António Guterres, “build back better” for biodiversity conservation. We will need transformative change of our development models, as well as whole-of-government, whole-of-society integrated approaches on the basis of shared responsibility and global solidarity, to restore and protect nature, thereby ensuring the integrity and advancement of human well-being.

Simply put, biodiversity is fundamental for human health and sustainable development and thus a political choice that gives us the opportunity to do what is right for our planet and human well-being.