Trevor Hancock: Loss of biodiversity is a public-health emergency

Last week, I suggested that adverse events and system failures in the health-care system constitute a public-health emergency. But the health-care system is only one of the determinants of our health, and not the most important one.

Starting this week, I will explore other challenges to the health of the people of B.C. that the provincial health officer and the minister of health should also declare to be public-health emergencies.

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The most profound of these is our present industrial society and economic system. While it generates high levels of wealth, consumption and general well-being, it does so at a terrible cost to present and future generations. In particular, it is causing massive ecological change and high levels of inequality, both of which are arguably the greatest threats that we face to the health of our society.

In its report last year, the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health wrote that “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realize economic and development gains in the present.

“By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilization has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life-support systems in the future.”

Climate change is just one of several aspects of rapid global ecological change that threaten our health. The loss of biodiversity and the extinction of many animal and plant species is another; the sixth “Great Extinction” that we are causing will not be without consequences.

The Living Planet Index, produced biennially by the World Wide Fund for Nature, measures trends in the populations of thousands of vertebrate species (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish). Its 2014 report, with data only up to 2010, shows an overall global decline of 52 per cent between 1970 and 2010. In freshwater species, the decline is steeper — 76 per cent — while there is a 39 per cent decline in both land and marine vertebrates.

Recently, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew produced its first report on the state of the world’s plants. It notes that “21 per cent of global plant species are currently threatened with extinction.”

The main threats are the conversion of land for agriculture, use of plants as resources (e.g. timber), residential and commercial development, and the modification of natural ecosystems (e.g. by dams).

Some of these plants and animals are important food species, some might have potential as medicines, while others might be key to the maintenance of healthy ecosystems. In all such cases, their loss threatens our health, not to mention our spiritual well-being; we are all diminished when we lose biodiversity.

Especially worrisome is the potential loss of pollinators — species that link the plant and animal kingdoms and are essential to ecosystem functioning and our well-being. An advance draft of a recent report of IPBES, an intergovernmental panel on biodiversity, focuses on animal pollinators, which include bees, birds, bats, beetles and butterflies.

More than 75 per cent of the world’s main food crops and 90 per cent of its wildflowers depend at least in part on these animals for pollination. And many of them are in trouble, which means we are, too.

Of particular concern are bees. While we lack data for many parts of the world, where we have it, it is troubling. The panel reports that “in Europe, nine per cent of bee and butterfly species are threatened, and populations are declining for 37 per cent of bees and 31 per cent of butterflies.”

B.C. is not a bystander in this process. The clear-cutting of vast swaths of primary forest, be it in B.C., the Amazon or Borneo, is a form of ecocide — the biological equivalent of genocide. Our agricultural systems, dependent as they are upon pesticides, monocultures and other harmful practices, contribute to the loss of beneficial insects and to other harmful ecological changes.

And our demand for “stuff” — and the natural resources from which it comes — places unsustainable demands on the natural resources and ecosystems of middle- and low-income countries, leading to species extinctions there.

The loss of biodiversity is thus worth designating as a public-health emergency, which means that public-health action must extend from changing personal behaviours such as smoking and unhealthy eating to addressing the societal behaviours that threaten other species — and thus ourselves.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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