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We must protect biodiversity if we are to protect ourselves

It is encouraging to see that the European Commission has many policies and actions on biodiversity and this editorial from “Science for Environment Policy” is republished with thanks.

We need to recognise that our need for a stable climate is to preserve biodiversity, a concept poorly understood by most of our elected representatives. Indeed, in a report just released on the state of the Environment in NSW, the chapter on biodiversity makes sorry reading http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/soe/soe2012/chapter5/chp_5.1.htm#5.1.8

Good health is a precious commodity. This year, more than 13 billion euros will be donated by wealthy nations to procure food and medicines and to improve sanitation and freshwater access for populations in need of improved quality of life. But other investments may be just as valuable, if not more so, for ensuring health. In particular, there may be no greater strategic investment in health than in the protection of biodiversity, or the variety of life on earth – including all species, their genes, and the ecosystems they form – as biodiversity underlies almost everything that keeps us healthy. While biodiversity has often been considered only relevant to biologists or ecologists, a growing body of research makes clear that it is equally relevant to health-related disciplines.

The biosphere is undergoing dramatic change. The most frequently cited statistics address rates of species loss, which indicate that species extinctions are occurring at a rate that is 100 to 1000 times faster than occurred before humans walked the earth. For comparison, this rate may put 50% or more of all species alive today at risk of extinction within the next century or so.

This Thematic Issue of Science for Environment Policy summarises recent scientific articles relating to the ties between biodiversity and ourselves.

‘Nature provides treasure trove of medical inspiration’ discusses new approaches to natural product drug discovery. Natural products have been the source of more than 60% of new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the past three decades, an example that reveals just how heavily dependent we are upon nature for new medicines. The study explores new horizons in natural product drug discovery and, in particular, how new leads in drug discovery have accelerated through the use of new screening methods. ‘From sweeteners to cancer treatments: nature points to new products’ describes the potential loss of many useful compounds as a result of biodiversity loss.

As vital as nature may be as a source of new medicines, perhaps the greatest value of ‘bioprospecting’, the search for useful products in nature, may come from the scientific discoveries enabled by natural products. ‘Species extinction is a disaster for human health’ discusses the conopeptides, a group of around 100,000 or more molecules collectively produced in more than 600 species of the marine sea snail genus Conus. While one conopeptide has become a new painkiller, many more have proven invaluable molecular tools for scientists who have used them to better understand how our brains may be susceptible to diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Coral reefs, one of the planet’s richest sources of biodiversity, have come under multiple assaults. Warming ocean temperatures, driven by climate change, ocean acidification driven by the increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, result in coral bleaching causing symbiotic algae, normally an essential source of oxygen and sugars for the coral, to become toxic. If we lose coral reefs we will lose protection against storm surges and waves as well as untold numbers of species that are dependent upon reef ecosystems and, with them, all the medicinal potential they may possess. ‘What is the medical value of marine biodiversity?’ estimates that there could be nearly 600,000 novel compounds, as yet undiscovered, in unstudied marine species.

Species loss may deny us the discovery of new medicines and serves as a clear connection between biodiversity loss and health. Equally important are the health consequences of ecological change, including the spread of human infectious diseases. The number of emerging infectious diseases, such as SARS, has grown steadily over the past several decades – mostly the result of pathogens moving from wildlife to humans. Although much more research is needed, early evidence, as described in ‘Link between biodiversity and human disease’, suggests that loss of biodiversity and ecological disruption may set the stage for disease spread from animals to humans. ‘Changes in biodiversity can increase risk of infectious human disease’ summarises the many ways in which disturbances to biodiversity can affect the spread of human disease.

‘Alternative agriculture’: key to preserving food security and biodiversity?’ reveals that farms, arguably the most important ecosystems for human health, have been put under severe stress to meet the demands of a growing population. The article implies that if we are to meet the world’s nutritional demands, we have to pay greater attention to the limits of ecosystems. ‘Pollinator-dependence an underestimated risk?’ highlights the importance of managing biodiversity to support ecosystem services, such as pollination, on which modern agriculture is dependent.
Maintaining agricultural biodiversity, including the diversity of crops, livestock, agroforestry, fish, pollinators, insects, and soil organisms) has a positive impact on food security through:
• Supporting soil-based processes that allow nutrient recycling, water retention and groundwater resources recharge; pollinators; and natural predation for pest control, all of which may contribute to more robust crop yields.
• Reducing reliance on external inputs and state subsidies to buy inorganic fertilisers and pesticides, thereby making small scale farmers less dependent on local retailers and money lenders.
• Providing a diversified, more nutritious, diet. Indigenous fruits contribute about 42% of the diet in rural households in southern Africa, and are an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, as well as critical sustenance during lean seasons.
• Biodiverse agroecosystems mitigate risks from climate change including floods, droughts and heat waves as well as the invasion of new pests, weeds, and diseases. They also tend to sequester more carbon.

This Thematic Issue raises a broad range of policy issues – from land use planning and infrastructure projects to disease prevention. Some of these issues have a global dimension and call for international action, while others are relevant for decision making at the local level. Biodiversity and health has been of particular interest following the presentation by the European Commission in 2011 of the EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy1, and the adoption of a broad range of decisions at the Conference of the Parties (COP10) of the Convention on Biological Diversity2. The EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy increases policy focus on ecosystem services, which are integrated into its main objectives. However, some ecosystem services that contribute directly to human health are still difficult to assess, which remains an obstacle to their full integration in policymaking. The European Commission is supporting the assessment of the status and trends of medicinal plants in Europe. While ecosystem service research has progressed rapidly over the past 10 years, it is important to take stock of recent knowledge in view of future policy developments.

The ongoing simplification of nature is a vast uncontrolled and irreversible experiment. If we lose a gene, species or ecosystem, it is gone forever. While we have much to learn about life on earth, we know enough to recognise that we must protect biodiversity if we are to protect ourselves.
Aaron Bernstein, MD MPH
Associate Director, Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard School of Public Health
Hospitalist, Division of General Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital

1. See: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/comm2006/2020.htm
2. See: http://www.cbd.int/cop10/