Why biodiversity conservation is necessary for dealing with the pandemic

On this Environment Day, let us commit ourselves to protect the biodiversity, for our own existence, writes Pradeep S. Mehta, George Cheriyan & Simi T. B.for South Asia Monitor

Pradeep S. Mehta Jun 05, 2020

The theme for the World Environment Day 2020, which is observed on June 5 every year since 1972/74 is biodiversity, a concern that is both urgent and existential. Recent events, like the bushfires in Brazil and Australia, locust attacks in East Africa and South Asia, the tropical cyclones: Amphan and Nisarga on our coasts among 42 globally so far this year are the consequences of climate change. Further, the highly debilitating global pandemic: COVID-19, demonstrate the critical interdependence of humans and nature. With almost one million life forms facing extinction, there has never been a more important time to focus on preserving biodiversity and restoring the delicate balance between homo sapiens and Mother Nature.

Many countries including India are committed to preserving its biodiversity under the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) signed in June 1992 at Rio de Janeiro. This includes cross border cooperation under various treaties such as trade in endangered species. One big country, the US is not a party to the CBD. It is also not a party to Climate Change Convention among many international arrangements and is now threatening to pull out of the World Health Organisation. All these three institutions are interconnected closely to each other and the human race, as we will see below.

Rapid extinction

The earth is an ecosystem and every species in it is joined together for their own wellbeing and existence. Unfortunately, human interventions have contributed adversely to the on-going loss of biodiversity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost globally. A total of 20,334 tree species have been identified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish have declined on average by 60 percent in the past 40 years. Freshwater species are going to become extinct even more rapidly than terrestrial or marine species with a population decline of 83 percent between 1970 and 2014 alone. These losses constitute a direct threat to human well-being across the world.

Well-balanced biodiversity for natural immunity 

Human lives cannot be protected when the biosphere crumbles so rapidly. The stability and survival of mankind is linked with the health of our surrounding environment. Any fluctuation in the level of interaction of microbes present in human bodies with the natural environment and biodiversity leads to reduced diversity in the human microbes. This can lead to immune deficiency and create epidemic outbreaks and risks of a pandemic like the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

Microbes play an important role in our body by helping us digest and ferment foods, as well as in the development of the immune system. Only well-balanced biodiversity can ensure that all species have natural immune systems and are able to adapt rapidly to new situations. Biodiversity acts as a barrier, especially against disease-causing organisms. As increasingly human populations continue to encroach on the habitats of other animals, it is feared that the risk of deadly viruses being transmitted between species will grow. Many of the health epidemics in history also clearly point out the interconnection between the destruction of nature and human illnesses. 

Urgent and substantial efforts are required to recognise, preserve, and propagate the importance of biodiversity and the role it plays to ensure food and health security. Supply and production of safe food not only support livelihoods and trade but also aid in boosting the economies and ensuring sustainable development. Unsafe foods and food habits threaten the very existence of mankind. 

Climate change, food security, and biodiversity

The US-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in its April issue Climate change: Unpacking the burden on food safety, published a detailed scientific descriptions of how climate change is threatening the safety of food source from both land and sea, and outlines how the exposure to a number of foodborne hazards could increase across the world. It also claims that climate change can even lower the nutritional value in staple foods by reducing their levels of macro and micronutrients. 

The combination of malnutrition, which reduces immunity and increases susceptibility to foodborne pathogens, together with higher risk of exposure to food hazards under climate change can lead to a dire situation that needs urgent international attention. The report is alarming.  Because unsafe food is not only detrimental to people’s health and food security, it can adversely impact local livelihoods, national economies and international trade.

Even the locust, now swarming across northern parts of India, which has the ability to even cause famine in its path, is a perfect example of how the impacts of climate change in one part of the world affected an altogether different regions. Authorities claim that the huge turnout of these crop-raiding locusts this year in most parts of India traces back to unforeseen imbalances in the Indian Ocean Dipole; heavy rainfall in the central and eastern region in countries like Yemen, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran, and Afghanistan; and two cyclonic events in East Africa that created temporary lakes in the desert and facilitated locust breeding. This incident itself shows how biodiversity and climate change plays a role in building sustainable food security and how it is influenced by climate variability, such as extreme weather events. 

Way forward 

More in-depth action plans are, therefore, vital to combat the causes and arrest the loss of biodiversity. For that one needs to realise that human, animal, and environmental health are inextricably linked and need to be studied and managed holistically. Policy actions and societal initiatives are also vital for a fragile environment. Developing economies like India need to help raise awareness about the impact of human consumption on nature and the importance of protecting local environments. Efforts should be taken to promote sustainable economies and restore a degraded environment.

Together with such initiatives, efforts should also be taken to mitigate rising pollution and integrate biodiversity considerations in decision making on any sector, whether its water, agriculture, health, industry, or infrastructure. Multidisciplinary collaboration among decision-makers and other stakeholders at all levels is vital. Since any further threat to our biodiversity will seriously undermine all the efforts taken till now to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to the quality of life of future generations. On this Environment Day, let us commit ourselves to protect the biodiversity, for our own existence. 

(The authors work with CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group) 

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