Preserving biodiversity for planetary, human health

The Big 3: Three questions, three answers

August 23, 2023 – Liz Willetts, visiting scholar and planetary health policy director in Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health, co-authored a comment in The Lancet about how nations can align their biodiversity policies to optimize outcomes for both biodiversity and health.

Q: How does the decline of biodiversity impact global public health?

A: Biodiversity is fundamental to the physical and mental well-being of not only humans but all of species on Earth—because when we lose biodiversity, we are losing key cogs that support high-quality air, water, soil, food, and more.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario—it is our present reality. We are experiencing a net nature loss every day worldwide, which is harming ecosystems around the globe. This continuous damage is harming habitats that provide medical treatments—particularly for the nearly 80% of the global population who rely on natural remedies for basic ailments and simple diseases. These habitats also provide opportunities for physical activity, calm places to help relieve stress, nutritious food and clean water, and additional significant health benefits.

Biodiversity loss is a major crisis on its own, but the danger increases even further when we look at how this challenge interacts with other planetary concerns including climate change, pollution, growing health inequities, and emerging pandemic threats. These are converging risks and must be addressed by converging solutions.

Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to preserving biodiversity?

A: The need for action to protect biodiversity has received significant global attention. Last year, 196 government parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to updating their national biodiversity strategies and action plans by the end of 2024. However, much is needed to translate this into comprehensive action.

One key problem is that the structures for sharing information on biodiversity and health need improvement. For example, pollutants are often assessed under one department while diseases associated with those pollutants are assessed under another, with limited overlap or coordination. Similarly, novel interdisciplinary thinking or innovative cross-sector collaborations—such as making the connection between nutritious diets and biodiversity conservation—may exist in one government’s strategy but is not being shared with other governments. We need more platforms to share best practices.

Another challenge is that certain sectors of our society, including health and public health, do not fully recognize their own impacts on biodiversity and the downstream consequences of their actions. For example, a hospital’s pollution—such as greenhouse gas emissions from high energy use or wastewater pollutants—can harm ecosystems and bring about long-term health consequences for the patient population. Biodiversity is not just important for ecologists and field biologists; all sectors need to recognize their responsibility. We need a multi-pronged policy approach with contributions from a wide variety of actors.

Q: What tools do we have at our disposal to address biodiversity loss?

A: If the bad news is that we have not yet brought our full resources to bear on preserving biodiversity, the good news is that there is low-hanging fruit available that can make a significant impact.

Our recent comment in The Lancet identified six targets in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework—the ambitious global agreement on biodiversity goals adopted at COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference held in December 2022—that need collaborative approaches for effective action. We recommended simple advancements under each target to promote policy alignment between environment and health ministries. Taken together, these recommendations would go a long way toward jointly addressing environmental degradation, health promotion, and disease prevention, and creating positive impact at regional and even global levels for people and planet.

The key here is policy coordination. By setting up checklists to ensure that agencies are considering the linkages between biodiversity and health and facilitating cross-disciplinary communication, we raise further awareness of both the challenges we face and the opportunities to improve.

Jeff Sobotko