Being well, and having the ability to look after our health depends upon multiple factors, including our economic status and also the state of our environment. Within this, biodiversity is the foundation for human health. By securing the goods and services which biodiversity provides to us, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity offers significant benefits to our health. Conversely, the continuing decline in biodiversity globally represents a direct threat to our health and well-being. Without a global environment that is healthy and capable of sustaining a diversity of life, human populations cannot thrive. In 2020 however the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published its Living Planet Report which told us we are using the planet's resources faster than they can be renewed. Its main findings show that animal species globally have declined by 68% between 1970 and 2016.
Biodiversity provides a number of crucial benefits in terms of human health, including:
Supporting food security, dietary health and livelihood sustainability
- Genetic diversity across food systems acts as the basis for crop development and food security, and provides resilience to environmental stresses such as pests and diseases of crops/livestock. Diets rich in a diversity of food species promote health, and can help to protect against disease by reducing the risk of nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. Loss of agricultural biodiversity can subsequently harm health, livelihood sustainability and human food and nutrition security.
Providing resources for medical research
- Scientific studies involving wildlife anatomy, physiology and biochemistry can provide important insights into human medicines. Examples of species of interest for medical science purposes include bears (osteoporosis, cardio-vascular disease), sharks (immunology) and horse-shoe crabs (optometry).
Providing resources for traditional and modern medicine
- Biodiversity loss can affect community traditions and livelihoods based on traditional medicinal practices that depend on wild animals or plants. Globally, millions of people depend on traditional medicinal for their health care needs. Modern drugs are also derived from wild species, including pain killers (e.g. Zinconitide from cone snail toxin), anti-cancer drugs (Taxol from Taxus trees) and cardiac drugs (e.g. Lanoxin from Digitalis plants).
Regulating and controlling infectious disease
- Biodiversity loss can increase the risk of infectious disease in animals, plants and humans. In recent years, outbreaks of SARS, ebola, Marburg, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, avian flu and malaria have all been linked to human impacts on biodiversity, wildlife trade or unsustainable land use change.
Social, cultural and spiritual importance within communities
- Biodiversity change can result in disconnection of populations from open spaces, with negative repercussions for physical and mental well-being and loss of sense of place for individuals. This has been linked to increased prevalence of diabetes, obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease and psychological illnesses in affluent societies. Equally, access to green spaces (natural/artificial) are linked with better physical and mental health outcomes, and with reduced anti-social behaviour.
Conserving biodiversity is essential to adapt to climate change
- Climate change will have substantial impacts on human health, many of which are linked to climate impacts on ecosystems. For instance, alterations in the ecology of pathogens, or in populations or distribution of diseases such as mosquitoes, could result in changes to disease patterns and increase the risk of outbreaks in areas not currently susceptible to malaria. Loss of ecosystem services could also pose other risks for communities undergoing climate change impacts, including extreme weather occurrences, drought and crop failure.
Stable ecosystems can reduce risk of disasters and support recovery efforts
- Biodiversity can act as a natural buffer to natural disasters such as flooding and droughts. Habitat loss can also contribute to desertification and dryland salinity, impacting on the livelihoods of individuals. This is especially true for vulnerable and poorer communities globally. For instance, in many regions globally, rural populations are heavily dependent on effective ecosystem functioning for their livelihoods, and are increasingly at-risk if these ecosystems are negatively damaged in the process, for example through increased risk of illness, loss of income or loss of food (World Health Organisation, 2015).
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