The future beyond COVID-19 requires rebuilding planetary health

4 steps to a more resilient Earth

The uniquely cavernous and forested landscape of southern Java, Indonesia. Faizal Abdul Aziz, CIFOR
22 April 2020
Tony Simons
22 April 2020
Tony Simons

Throughout history, infectious disease has been one of humanity’s biggest killers. Despite humanity’s long relationship with contagions, the COVID-19 virus has shocked the world with panic buying of food and selling of shares, lockdowns and closed borders, reminding us of our vulnerability.

And yet, throughout this tragic health crisis, human endeavor and ingenuity have been on full display. Within weeks, geneticists had sequenced the virus, labs connected digitally across the world began developing vaccines, car manufacturers retooled to make medical equipment, and phrases like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” became part of our lexicon.  

Hindsight is wonderful, but foresight is better. We need to move beyond looking at crises in the rear-view mirror and instead predict and prepare for the risks posed by climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation and land-use mismanagement. How can we learn from this pandemic to avoid future catastrophes, not only from pathogens but also from environmental, social and financial emergencies and the threats they pose to planetary health?

Our vulnerability and ingenuity are a forewarning: we can see what our future looks like with climate change, degraded landscapes and damaged ecosystems. We need to act decisively to tackle these problems. Nature, through the COVID-19 crisis, has reminded us of the connections between human health, resilient landscapes, economic stability and livelihoods, allowing us to see in real time the results of inaction. We fail to act at our peril.

At CIFOR-ICRAF, we helped pioneer the idea that land health underpins both human and environmental health. Landscapes, from which we derive our food, fiber, water and wood, are key. Mismanaged landscapes are often the source of the viruses that have threatened humans, including COVID-19, Ebola, HIV-AIDS and Zika, to name just a few. Failing to maintain land health will eventually create the same kind of emergency we are fighting with COVID-19 and its impact on health and livelihoods. As we look beyond the current crisis from a much wider and longer-term perspective, addressing the following four steps is crucial to rebuilding planetary health.

1. Change the way we produce food

A farmer picks red coffee cherries from a sustainable plantation in West Lampung, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR
A farmer picks red coffee cherries from a sustainable plantation in West Lampung, Indonesia. Ulet Ifansasti, CIFOR

The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Regenerative agriculture enhances and sustains the health of the soil, which in turn improves productivity. This is the opposite of conventional fossil fuel-based agriculture. Conventionally farmed land around the world has lost about half of its carbon through plowing and leaving land bare between crops. By increasing soil carbon through regenerative agriculture, some studies suggest annual carbon output could be offset by 3 billion tons, almost as much as the European Union’s annual GHG emissions. Producing food using agroecology, agroforestry and natural farming approaches would go a long way in restoring land and protecting livelihoods.

2. Restore the forests and lands that support our agriculture

A mangrove sapling. Mangroves provide a multitude of ecosystem services yet rank are among the world's most threatened forest types. Sigit Deni Sasmito, CIFOR
A mangrove sapling. Mangroves provide a multitude of ecosystem services yet rank are among the world’s most threatened forest types. Sigit Deni Sasmito, CIFOR

Degraded land costs the world USD 6 trillion annually in lost services, goods and livelihoods. Land restoration, in part through initiatives like the Bonn Challenge, must become an economically viable enterprise that creates jobs and produces goods while restoring the land’s productive capacity. We need to step away from the idea that ecosystems must be restored back to their “original” pristine condition. This is not possible in most cases. And tree-planting is not enough; it’s and even the wrong approach in some cases (planting trees in grassland is a mistake from a biodiversity perspective). Assisted natural regeneration should be our first choice for biodiversity. Global forest restoration could help sequester more than 200 gigatons of carbon, create productive buffers to protected areas, and produce goods and services.

3. Make our supply chains sustainable

A plantation of the valuable teak wood in Yanonge, Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR
A plantation of the valuable teak wood in Yanonge, Democratic Republic of Congo. Axel Fassio, CIFOR

Existing supply chains and trade are a source of deforestation and land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and health risks. This doesn’t need to be the case. Independent monitoring of corporate pledges on deforestation commitments, removing incentives for unsustainable behavior, paying a fair price to producers and enforcing strict trade measures will go a long way in showing that you can make money while doing good. With 80 percent of food in Africa and Asia being produced by smallholder farmers, there is considerable opportunity to rebuild sustainability from the ground up. A supply chain cannot be sustainable if at any point it’s not financially, environmentally or socially sustainable.

4. Value natural capital correctly (we can’t eat money)

A child holds cuttings of cassava that's been naturally improved to be more resilient to risks posed by climate change. Fiston Wasanga, CIFOR
A child holds cuttings of cassava that’s been naturally improved to be more resilient to risks posed by climate change. Fiston Wasanga, CIFOR

Natural capital is the water, soil, viable land, food, air and energy we rely on to support life. By some estimates, the monetary value of these natural services is even larger than global GDP. Sadly, we have failed to give natural capital a value on balance sheets and in markets. Without putting a price on natural capital, there is no incentive to conserve or improve it. The consequences are well documented: production of commodities from cocoa to palm oil that fails to account for the cost of deforestation, carbon emissions, damage to local livelihoods and biodiversity loss, and food systems that are incentivized by land-use mismanagement. Instead, the world needs new approaches to food production and landscape management that build resilience and balance. This will result in better diets, protected pollinators, less agrochemical application on soil, more efficient water use, low tillage and cover crops, more agroforestry, and a shift away from monoculture to agroecological diversity.

Sadly, there is no mask for climate change, no sanitizer for deforestation and no safe distance to isolate from degraded land. We do have a shield though: protecting our landscapes and our planet. In doing so, we can bolster human health and quality of life for everyone on earth. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that now is the time to act.


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