Pollution, pollination and planetary health

6 August, 2015

Sometimes we need to see the big picture.

Most of us instinctively know that human health and wellbeing depends on the health and wellbeing of the planet. We accept the idea often without really going into the depths of how and why this is true.

We also accept the inevitable rolling of eyes when we say to our friends that ‘all things are connected’ and that it is impossible to make huge changes in the name of progress – such as destruction of natural habitats without it destroying human wellbeing as well.

But occasionally the depth of this truth is revealed to us.

A collaboration between the Rockefeller Foundation and the medical journal the Lancet  has recently called for a new scientific discipline: ‘planetary health’ – that incorporates “the interdependencies of human and natural systems, while also recognising preserving the integrity of natural systems is an essential precondition for human health, survival, and prosperity.”

A manifesto for life

In a joint manifesto the newly formed Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health called upon health professionals and public health practitioners, politicians and policy makers – and the public – to participate in creating a global movement for planetary health.

It notes “Our patterns of overconsumption are unsustainable and will ultimately cause the collapse of our civilisation. The harms we continue to inflict on our planetary systems are a threat to our very existence as a species. The gains made in health and wellbeing over recent centuries, including through public health actions, are not irreversible; they can easily be lost, a lesson we have failed to learn from previous civilisations. We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small, wealthy elite over the many who have so little.”

It also calls for public health and medicine to act as “the independent conscience of planetary health.”

An inadequate political response

The manifesto came with a lengthy review article looking at the human impact of our unsustainable lifestyle  which noted that the way we govern has a role to play in our future health:

“The present systems of governance and organisation of human knowledge are inadequate to address the threats to planetary health. We call for improved governance to aid the integration of social, economic, and environmental policies and for the creation, synthesis, and application of interdisciplinary knowledge to strengthen planetary health.”

Further, two studies, which were also published as part of the package, sum up the interconnectedness of the problems we face.

Pollinators and nutrition

In a study of pollinators, researchers calculated the potential health impacts of declines in pollinators – mostly bees and other insects. Pollinators are responsible for around 35% of global food production and up to 40% of the world’s supply of important micronutrients, such as vitamin A and folate which are crucial for both children and pregnant women.

Insufficient or non-existent consumption of key foods which pollinator species help produce, in turn increases the risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, esophageal and even lung cancer.

A complete loss of animal pollinators globally, say the researchers, would thrust an additional 71 million people into vitamin A deficiency and 173 million more into folate deficiency, leading to about 1.42 million additional deaths per year from non-communicable diseases and malnutrition-related diseases – a 2.7% increase in total yearly deaths.

Loss of habitat and forage and the use of “pollinator-harming pesticides” are among the reasons the scientists cite for declines in pollinator populations.

Pollution = zinc deficiency

The second study looked at how increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in our atmosphere were linked to lower levels of zinc in our food.

Zinc is another key nutrient for the health of pregnant women and children; without enough, there is increased risk of premature delivery, reduced growth and weight gain in young children, as well as decreased immune function.

Previous research has also suggested that higher concentrations of atmospheric CO₂ can lower the content of zinc in important crops such as wheat, rice, barley, and soya. The authors estimated that growing CO2 emissions caused by human activity could place 138 to 187 million people at new risk of zinc deficiency by 2050.

You know we’ve got a problem when two otherwise conservative groups come together to try and articulate it (something which some of us have been doing for a very long time!). And on the basis that doing something is generally better than doing nothing, I applaud the aims of the planetary health manifesto.

The question now is, how do we turn fine words into fine deeds?

Watch this space.

Pat Thomas, Editor