Biodiversity’s role in One Health approach has been minimal – until now

GLF digital forum informs global governance on intersections between ecosystems and pandemics

The Llandscapes of Mutis-Timau in Timor, Indonesia. Nanang Sujana, CIFOR
29 October 2020
29 October 2020

This post is also available in: Español

Of the many forms of disaster caused by humanity’s alteration of 75 percent of the world’s terrestrial surface, COVID-19 has been a harrowing wakeup call to the new reality of deadly and economically devastating global pandemics and their inextricable ties to the destruction of landscapes.

Yet, scientists and medical practitioners long predicted an outbreak of this kind – it was only a matter of what the virus would be and when it would emerge. The prophetic approach to health that foresaw this catastrophe is known as One Health, a field of research that recognizes human, animal and ecological health as interdependent and seeks to address them holistically.

Ecological health has been the lagging tier of the One Health trifecta. To this end, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) designed a two-day digital event on the role of biodiversity in the One Health approach to boost the role environmental science and ecology therein. The GLF is the world’s largest science- and knowledge-led platform for sustainable land use, and as the bedrock of the event, 15 white papers were created and published from a number of the world’s top environmental science research organizations to inform to policy- and decision-makers as well as actors in animal and human health.

“Perhaps the One Health approach has in the past been dominated by medical and veterinary professions,” said Keith Sumpton, a veterinarian and leader of the Animal Health Program at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N (FAO). “I recognize this needs to change. The One Health approach needs to engage and receive the contributions of natural resource management professionals working in ecosystems, biodiversity and wildlife management.”

Dennis Carroll, an infectious disease expert and grandfather of the One Health movement, began the event by recalling the rise of the One Health approach as a response to outbreaks of Ebola H1N1 and avian influenza over the course of the past two decades. “One Health, which was really the emerging paradigm, said we had to tear down the barriers between the public health community, the animal health community and the eco health community… We really had to be smart, and we had to move with the kind of resilience and elasticity that viruses move through.”

Illustration by Josie Ford

While the One Health approach has been around in various forms since the late 1960s, it is still a long way from being mainstreamed in health sectors despite its mighty promises of disease prevention. The Global Virome Project, a U.S. government-funded platform that operationalizes the One Health approach that Carroll now helps lead, has estimated that with USD 4 billion, researchers could identify nearly all infectious diseases.

Yet the most shocking part of COVID-19 to experts in the One Health community was the failure of collective global political action in response, which Carroll attributes to the rise in nationalism and populism in recent years. “We’ve managed to construct siloes and barriers in ways that allow viruses and bacteria to exploit them to the max… but we have seen the scientific community act as global community. We’ve seen their ability to share data, their ability to rush forward in ways that are historic.”

The GLF event’s aim to cement ecological science and the importance of biodiversity in the approach comes with urgency and rides on the wave of the launch of the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a massive effort to achieve planetary health through the restoration of degraded ecosystems that will officially be set into motion next year. “Institutional, policy and government responses to land degradation are often reactive and fragmented and fail to address ultimate causes,” said Sir Robert Watson, head of the scientific advisory group for the UNEP Global Assessments Synthesis Report. “We need coordinated policy agendas that simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption. We need to reduce and reverse degradation. We need landscape-wide approaches that integrate the development of agriculture, forest, energy, water and infrastructure agendas.

“We’re running out of time. This is the decisive decade for humanity’s future on earth.”

Into the wild meat

Seventy-five percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted to humans from other animals through direct or indirect contact. As natural lands and habitats are degraded or converted for human use, the likelihood of such contact and disease transmission increases, known as disease “spillover.”

One of the primary causes of disease spillover is through the consumption of contaminated wild meat. In this sense, a core part of disease prevention through the One Health approach lies in the transformation of food systems. Agriculture was starkly addressed in a seminal biodiversity report published in September by the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity. As explained by its lead author David Cooper in a session at the event, the report found that agriculture covers 9 percent of all land, with only 29 percent of farms operating sustainably, and more than 27 percent of domesticated animals are at risk of extinction, threatening food security. Implementing a One Health approach was one of the report’s primary recommendations for curbing biodiversity loss.

Illustration by Josie Ford

Laura Kahn, who co-founded the influential One Health Initiative in 2006, put forth two provocations: whether or not the consumption of wild animals is a basic human right, and if wildlife trade and live animal markets should be banned to stop further spillover events. For the communities that depend on wild meat for their survival, stymying their food sources would be an assault on basic human rights, she said. But for populations where other animal-based sources of protein are available, particularly in urban areas, the wild meat trade needs to be curbed – a message echoed by experts throughout the day.

“The U.S. has the highest meat consumption per capita of any country in the world, and we are in no moral position to tell other countries what or what not to eat,” said Laura Kahn. “But it behooves us to consider what we eat in order to preserve life on this planet.”

Down to the ground

The One Health approach’s success depends not only on the research and collaboration of scientists in labs and universities but also on intervening with the local communities where spillover is most likely to occur. In a white paper put forth from FAO, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the Wildlife Conservation Society, a number of community-oriented preventative measures are recommended to “ensure the early detection and reporting of future zoonotic spillover and disease outbreaks at human–wildlife–livestock interfaces.”

Such preventative measures include training hunters and wild meat processors to minimize exposure to disease, preserving meat in ways that render potential pathogens harmless, and supporting regular health inspections along the wild meat value chain. This requires more resources and slicker ladders of information, said Sumpton of FAO. Surveillance of high-risk areas need to be community-developed and the results need to be fed up to national government; data needs to be fed back down for to inform local decisions; and government ministries relevant to One Health need to be integrated with one another.

Illustration by Josie Ford

Mark Plotkin, celebrated ethnobotanist and president of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), drew attention to the Brazilian Amazon, where COVID-19 has seen the mortality rate of Indigenous peoples rise to nearly double that of the general population, largely due to the various impacts of the destruction of their landscapes through illegal logging, hydroelectric dam construction, ranching and fire. While ACT has delivered more than 35 tons of medical, sanitary and emergency food supplies to Indigenous peoples in Latin America during the pandemic, the preventative solution is to ensure their proper control over their traditional lands through on-the-ground methods like ethnographic land mapping, as well as in legal formats, such as employing Indigenous peoples as park rangers and establishing protected areas. “The aim here is to create agency, not dependency… it’s to help people seize control of their cultural and environmental destiny,” he said.

Protected areas are indeed growing on political agendas. The EU Biodiversity Strategy, for one, aims to put 30 percent of European lands in protected areas by 2030. However, David Wilkie, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, urged for protected areas to be broader in definition: “ecological spaces where people individually or collectively take action to ensure persistence of parts of nature they value.” In addition to national parks and forests, this could include Indigenous territories, community conservancies, locally managed marine areas, private lands managed in ways that conserve nature, and commercial forest concessions with biodiversity protection provisions.

“Conserving and restoring ecosystems can prevent further degradation and will abate the conditions of the emergence of other infectious diseases,” said Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity. “The One Health approach will not only promote sustainable health and just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will also serve broader health objectives beyond the absence of diseases. It will equally strengthen the resilience of social, ecological and economic ecosystems.”


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