BIO­DI­VER­SITY IS MORE THAN JUST THE FORESTS

Lose di­ver­sity and we will be de­prived of fu­ture dis­cov­ery of po­ten­tial treat­ments for health prob­lems

New Straits Times - - OPINION -

TOO of­ten when we talk about bio­di­ver­sity, it evokes a no­tion of for­est de­struc­tion or species ex­tinc­tion. To many, it is just about the en­vi­ron­ment. Lit­tle do we re­alise, how­ever, that in fact bio­di­ver­sity is the foun­da­tion for hu­man health. It un­der­pins the func­tion­ing of the ecosys­tems on which we de­pend for our food and fresh wa­ter. It con­trib­utes to lo­cal liveli­hoods, to tra­di­tional and mod­ern medicines, and to eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. It aids in reg­u­lat­ing cli­mate, floods and dis­ease. It pro­vides recre­ational ben­e­fits, and aes­thetic and spir­i­tual en­rich­ment, sup­port­ing men­tal health.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion of­fers an in­sight­ful anal­y­sis of the link be­tween health and bio­di­ver­sity, be­gin­ning with a def­i­ni­tion of a healthy per­son as some­one not sim­ply free from ill­ness but in a state of com­plete phys­i­cal, men­tal and so­cial well­be­ing.

And, ac­cord­ing to WHO: “Peo­ple de­pend on bio­di­ver­sity in their daily lives, in ways that are not al­ways ap­par­ent or ap­pre­ci­ated. Hu­man health ul­ti­mately de­pends upon ecosys­tem prod­ucts and ser­vices (such as avail­abil­ity of fresh wa­ter, food and fuel sources) which are req­ui­site for good hu­man health and pro­duc­tive liveli­hoods.”

If ecosys­tem ser­vices can’t meet our needs, sig­nif­i­cant hu­man health im­pacts re­sult. Also af­fected are liveli­hoods and in­come, lead­ing to lo­cal mi­gra­tion and per­haps even po­lit­i­cal con­flict.

Knowl­edge of plant and an­i­mal di­ver­sity pro­vides ma­jor ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing drugs. When we lose di­ver­sity, we limit our fu­ture dis­cov­ery of po­ten­tial treat­ments for our health prob­lems. Tra­di­tional medicines are used by an es­ti­mated 60 per cent of the world’s peo­ple. And in some coun­tries they are in­cor­po­rated into the pub­lic health sys­tem ex­ten­sively. Medic­i­nal plants are the most com­mon el­e­ment of tra­di­tional medicine, col­lected from the wild or cul­ti­vated.

Al­though syn­thetic medicines are avail­able for many pur­poses, the global need and de­mand for nat­u­ral medic­i­nal prod­ucts is strong, as is the field of bio­med­i­cal re­search that re­lies on plants, an­i­mals and mi­crobes to un­der­stand hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy and to un­der­stand and treat hu­man dis­eases.

One of the best known ex­am­ples of the use of tra­di­tional knowl­edge in mod­ern medicine is the Mada­gas­car Rosy Peri­win­kle (“Pokok Bunga Ta­pak Dara” in Malay). Based on its wide usage in folk medicine, re­searchers be­gan to dwell into its nat­u­ral chem­i­cal prop­er­ties in the 1950s. Sci­en­tific anal­y­sis of the rosy peri­win­kle led to the dis­cov­ery of two pre­vi­ously un­known com­pounds — vin­cristine and vin­blas­tine — which have been sub­se­quently de­vel­oped into po­tent medicines to save pa­tients from leukaemia and Hodgkin’s lym­phoma, re­spec­tively.

Mean­while, bio­di­ver­sity plays a cru­cial role in hu­man nu­tri­tion, the health ex­perts say, through its in­flu­ence on world food pro­duc­tion. It en­sures pro­duc­tive soils and ge­netic re­sources for the crops, live­stock, and ma­rine species we eat.

The nutri­tional val­ues of va­ri­eties or breeds of the same food can dif­fer dra­mat­i­cally, af­fect­ing the es­sen­tial mi­cro-nu­tri­ent con­tent of our diet.

When we in­ten­sify and en­hance food pro­duc­tion — through ir­ri­gation schemes, the use of fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides, or when we in­tro­duce crop va­ri­eties and crop­ping pat­terns that af­fect bio­di­ver­sity, we can di­min­ish our so­ci­ety’s nu­tri­tion and health. When we lose species, we be­come more vul­ner­a­ble to ill health. Bio­di­ver­sity not only stores the prom­ise of new med­i­cal treat­ments and cures, it buf­fers hu­mans from or­gan­isms and agents that cause dis­ease.

By di­lut­ing the pool of virus tar­gets and hosts, bio­di­ver­sity re­duces their im­pact on hu­mans and pro­vides a form of global health in­sur­ance.

At the same time, in­tru­sion into the world's ar­eas of high bio­di­ver­sity dis­turbs these bi­o­log­i­cal reser­voirs and ex­poses peo­ple to new forms of in­fec­tious dis­ease. Grow­ing hu­man con­tact with wildlife through in­va­sion of for­est habi­tat and the use of wildlife for food and folk reme­dies is re­spon­si­ble for the emer­gence of a se­ries of lethal hu­man dis­eases that orig­i­nated in an­i­mals, most fa­mously SARS, HIVAIDS and Ebola. Prevent­ing emerg­ing dis­eases through bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion is far more cost ef­fec­tive than de­vel­op­ing vac­cines to com­bat them later.

“Hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties are dis­turb­ing both the struc­ture and func­tions of ecosys­tems and al­ter­ing na­tive bio­di­ver­sity,” says WHO.

“Ma­jor pro­cesses af­fect­ing in­fec­tious dis­ease reser­voirs and trans­mis­sion in­clude de­for­esta­tion, land-use change, wa­ter man­age­ment (e.g. through dam con­struc­tion, ir­ri­gation, un­con­trolled ur­ban­i­sa­tion or ur­ban sprawl), re­sis­tance to pes­ti­cide chem­i­cals used to con­trol cer­tain dis­ease vec­tors, cli­mate vari­abil­ity and change, mi­gra­tion and in­ter­na­tional travel and trade, and the ac­ci­den­tal or in­ten­tional hu­man in­tro­duc­tion of pathogens.”

The link be­tween bio­di­ver­sity and hu­man health has been wellar­tic­u­lated at the global level, such as through the joint work pro­gramme of WHO and the UN Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ven­tion, and both is­sues are men­tioned in the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals.

The ques­tion for Malaysians is how well are we fol­low­ing this wise slo­gan: “Think Global, Act Lo­cal”?

The writer, a dis­tin­guished fel­low of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C–based Global Fed­er­a­tion of Com­pet­i­tive­ness Coun­cil, is for­mer di­rec­tor of the United Na­tions Univer­sity’s In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Stud­ies in Tokyo

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