the pandemic should induce action on biodiversity

Written by Loic Gillerot

Posted on May 14 2020

๐—ง๐—ต๐—ฒ ๐—ฝ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ๐—ฒ๐—บ๐—ถ๐—ฐ ๐˜€๐—ต๐—ผ๐˜‚๐—น๐—ฑ ๐—ถ๐—ป๐—ฑ๐˜‚๐—ฐ๐—ฒ ๐—ฎ๐—ฐ๐˜๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ป ๐—ผ๐—ป ๐—ฐ๐—น๐—ถ๐—บ๐—ฎ๐˜๐—ฒ ๐—ฐ๐—ต๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ด๐—ฒ ๐—ฎ๐—ป๐—ฑ ๐—ฏ๐—ถ๐—ผ๐—ฑ๐—ถ๐˜ƒ๐—ฒ๐—ฟ๐˜€๐—ถ๐˜๐˜†, ๐—ป๐—ผ๐˜ ๐—ฐ๐—ฟ๐—ฒ๐—ฎ๐˜๐—ฒ ๐—ณ๐—ฒ๐—ฎ๐—ฟ ๐˜๐—ผ๐˜„๐—ฎ๐—ฟ๐—ฑ๐˜€ ๐—ป๐—ฎ๐˜๐˜‚๐—ฟ๐—ฒ
Though the SARS-CoV-2 virus stems from nature, itโ€™s not nature itself we need to worry about, but the many and varied disturbances we inflict upon it. Pristine ecosystems indeed contain a high diversity in pathogens, but these are kept in check by an equally high diversity in fauna and flora. Yet, itโ€™s this very biodiversity that we are assaulting at a large scale. An estimated one million species will be lost over the next decades. At the same time, natureโ€™s potential for mitigating the climate crisis depends on ecosystemsโ€™ biodiversity, but climate change itself impacts biodiversity. Now it also looks like this vicious circleโ€™s repercussions are tied with outbreaks similar to the current one.

Itโ€™s not nature itself we need to worry about, but the many and varied disturbances we inflict upon it.

The main threat to biodiversity is land-use change, in particular the encroachment of agricultural land upon natural areas. Half of the worldโ€™s habitable surface is now used for agriculture, 77% of which for livestock and meat production. The resulting deforestation and fragmentation of natural systems has important consequences for the transmission of diseases from wild animals to humans. A recent study showed that forest fragmentation could facilitate the diversification of pathogens, which can then be more easily transmitted to humans via wildlife. As humans venture deeper into untouched forests, the potential contact between wildlife and humans is multiplied, increasing the risk of infection.

As humans venture deeper into untouched forests, the potential contact between wildlife and humans is multiplied, increasing the risk of infection.

Deforestation will cause most animals to disappear, but the most adaptive species can be incited to seek shelter in anthropic environments, further worsening transmission risks. Itโ€™s no coincidence that these species are most often birds and mammals (e.g. rats and bats), which also happen to be the root cause of most recent outbreaks: the plague in Madagascar, Ebola in West Africa, but also typhus, yellow fever, rabies and even AIDS. In fact, a majority of infectious diseases originate from animals, two-thirds of which are wild. Note that such relationships are well-known since a while and scientific publications following the first SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 show troubling similarities.

What about the link with climate change?

The WHO acknowledges the link between climate change and large-scale contagions since many years. Causes are similar though: as climate change disrupts the usual provision of natural resources for wildlife, animals can be driven towards human settlements. They can even be forced to migrate over large distances, entering into contact with novel species and exchanging diseases. A warmer climate and longer summers can also expand suitable habitats for disease vectors, such as malaria- or dengue-transmitting mosquitoes.

Donโ€™t blame nature, donโ€™t blame the Chinese, blame the harmful relationship we have developed with our food and agriculture.ย 

All of this could conjure an image of a dangerous and deceitful natural world, but itโ€™s not natureโ€™s โ€˜faultโ€™ that weโ€™re in this situation. We are the ones disturbing natureโ€™s balance, leading to regular crises. Donโ€™t blame nature, donโ€™t blame the Chinese, blame the harmful relationship we have developed with our food and agriculture. Of course, itโ€™s not a great idea to consume exotic wildlife on wet markets with questionable hygienic standards, but itโ€™s an equally terrible idea to continue our rampant destruction of the last pristine forests for the sake of productivity. Our intensified globalisation has also greatly catalysed the fast spread of the virus. This is not so surprising considering the vast amount of goods and services moving around the world. Moreover, many of these products themselves cause massive biodiversity loss in the countries they are produced. For example, over 95% of the negative impacts on biodiversity arising from consumption are located abroad for a country like Switzerland.

Donโ€™t forget climate change is also jeopardizing your health, only less visibly and less immediately!

What scares me the most is that the economic crisis following our response to curb the covid-19 pandemic could justify the weakening of environmental laws in the name of an unbridled capitalist ideology. Our inaction regarding both the climate and biodiversity crises have partially fuelled this outbreak, so it is now especially timely to cling on the progress and momentum thus far and to promote integrative measures on climate change and biodiversity. Donโ€™t forget climate change is also jeopardizing your health, only less visibly and less immediately!