One Health: A Necessary Blend of Biodiversity and Human Health Goals

By Annie Mark | December 4, 2020

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As an American living in Germany and working for an international conservation organization, I find that most everyday people I speak with do not realize that in 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a commitment of €500 million per year to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), with a focus on protected areas.

That was an extraordinary commitment by the German government — something worth knowing and to be proud of. Initially intended as a four-year commitment, this annual allocation has continued through to this day, making Germany one of the world’s largest bilateral donors to biodiversity conservation.

In addition to biodiversity, Germany has also shown significant leadership in the Global Health sector. As we confront a pandemic originating with the zoonotic transmission of a virus from wildlife to humans that has devastated the global economy, there is now an opportunity to combine these two commitments and areas of expertise.

“The One Health approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of human, animal, and ecosystem health.”

In so doing, we work to create a new pathway toward green recovery: One Health. The One Health approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of human, animal, and ecosystem health.

In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) brought together stakeholders in global health to discuss issues at the nexus of animal, human, and ecosystem health. The symposium prompted the Manhattan Principles, which launched the modern One Health approach.

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Northern cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus) in Indonesia. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

As our planet has faced growing threats from climate change and biodiversity loss, One Health became too anthropocentric, placing nature at the service of humans.

In October 2019, WCS and the German Federal Foreign Office co-hosted a conference titled, “One Planet, One Health, One Future” which brought together members of academia, government, policy, and civil society from nearly 50 countries to forge the Berlin Principles on One Health. The message was to reassert the fundamental importance of biodiversity in One Health.

A mere two months before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the global economy and took more than 1.25 million lives, the Berlin Principles captured the threat to society globally if we continue to ignore the interconnected issues relevant to human, animal and environmental health. In so doing, we reasserted the fundamental importance of biodiversity for human health.

Critical to the protection of biodiversity is the maintenance of intact landscapes un-degraded by agriculture, extractive industry, and infrastructure like roads, railways, and power lines. Degradation of nature destroys habitat, releases sequestered carbon, and exposes people to viruses to which they previously had no contact and for which they have no natural immunity.

“Critical to the protection of biodiversity is the maintenance of intact landscapes un-degraded by agriculture, extractive industry, and infrastructure like roads, railways, and power lines.”

COVID-19 provides an unfortunate but essential opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental importance of the One Health approach. The world has taken notice in significant ways.

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a “Manifesto for a Health Recovery from COVID-19,” with the first suggestion being, “Protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature.” In June, the German Environment Minister, Ms. Svenja Schulze, gave a speech titled, “Nature Is Sending Us a Message.”

In September, German Foreign Minister Mr. Heiko Maas, at an event of the Alliance for Multilateralism, recognized ecosystem degradation as a root cause of pandemic disease emergence and called for full implementation of the Berlin Principles on One Health. At the World Health Summit last month, BMZ Minister Gerd Mller announced the creation of a new One Health priority area.

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Blackwater oxbow lake in the Amazon. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

These announcements and efforts are to be applauded. Germany is demonstrating leadership based on science, and building on its own expertise and years of experience in the biodiversity and health sectors. Most importantly, Germany is setting an example for other nations to follow, both to prevent future pandemics but also to address the biodiversity and climate change crises.

As Germany moves forward with implementing its One Health approach, particularly with regard to official development assistance, it is necessary to learn from the not-so-distant past and keep biodiversity conservation central to the process. This means that Germany must maintain, or preferably increase, its financial commitment to implementing the CBD and supporting protected areas.

Indeed, if we are truly to avoid future pandemics and the devastating consequences of mass extinctions and accelerated climate change, Germany and governments worldwide must take the One Health approach further. The forests we convert to agriculture, the roads we build through wilderness areas, and the alternative energy sources that destroy habitat are all acts of self-harm.

“Using the Berlin Principles and a One Health approach, scientists, practitioners, and policy makers can show how nature conservation underpins human health.”

Following last year’s successful conference, WCS and the German Federal Foreign Office recently co-hosted a follow-up event titled, “One Planet, One Health, One Future: Moving Forward in a Post-COVID19 World.” Over five sessions, the online event highlighted and elaborated what One Health looks like in practice, how to operationalize it, and how to prevent future zoonotic pandemics.

No country, government, or sector can accomplish this alone. Together, we must work across national borders and the silos of our sectors to create new collaborations, new programming and new funding opportunities.

Using the Berlin Principles and a One Health approach, scientists, practitioners, and policy makers can show how nature conservation underpins human health and ensure that health is no longer perceived as a fundamental competitor to economic growth.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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