What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity underpins life on Earth, and refers to the variety found in biota from genetic make up of plants an animals to cultural diversity.
What does biodiversity mean for human health?
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. Biodiversity loss can have significant direct human health impacts if ecosystem services are no longer adequate to meet social needs. Indirectly, changes in ecosystem services affect livelihoods, income, local migration and, on occasion, may even cause political conflict.
Additionally, biophysical diversity of microorganisms, flora and fauna provides extensive knowledge which carry important benefits for biological, health, and pharmacological sciences. Significant medical and pharmacological discoveries are made through greater understanding of the earth's biodiversity. Loss in biodiversity may limit discovery of potential treatments for many diseases and health problems.
Threats to biodiversity and health
There is growing concern about the health consequences of biodiversity loss and change. Biodiversity changes affect ecosystem functioning and significant disruptions of ecosystems can result in life sustaining ecosystem goods and services. Biodiversity loss also means that we are losing, before discovery, many of nature's chemicals and genes, of the kind that have already provided humankind with enormous health benefits. Specific pressures and linkages between health and biodiversity include:
Nutritional impact of biodiversity
Biodiversity plays a crucial role in human nutrition through its influence on world food production, as it ensures the sustainable productivity of soils and provides the genetic resources for all crops, livestock, and marine species harvested for food. Access to a sufficiency of a nutritious variety of food is a fundamental determinant of health.
Nutrition and biodiversity are linked at many levels: the ecosystem, with food production as an ecosystem service; the species in the ecosystem and the genetic diversity within species. Nutritional composition between foods and among varieties/cultivars/breeds of the same food can differ dramatically, affecting micronutrient availability in the diet. Healthy local diets, with adequate average levels of nutrients intake, necessitates maintenance of high biodiversity levels.
Intensified and enhanced food production through irrigation, use of fertilizer, plant protection (pesticides) or the introduction of crop varieties and cropping patterns affect biodiversity, and thus impact global nutritional status and human health. Habitat simplification, species loss and species succession often enhance communities vulnerabilities as a function of environmental receptivity to ill health.
Importance of biodiversity for health research and traditional medicine
Traditional medicine continue to play an essential role in health care, especially in primary health care. Traditional medicines are estimated to be used by 60% of the world’s population and in some countries are extensively incorporated into the public health system. Medicinal plant use is the most common medication tool in traditional medicine and complementary medicine worldwide. Medicinal plants are supplied through collection from wild populations and cultivation. Many communities rely on natural products collected from ecosystems for medicinal and cultural purposes, in addition to food.
Although synthetic medicines are available for many purposes, the global need and demand for natural products persists for use as medicinal products and biomedical research that relies on plants, animals and microbes to understand human physiology and to understand and treat human diseases.
Human activities are disturbing both the structure and functions of ecosystems and altering native biodiversity. Such disturbances reduce the abundance of some organisms, cause population growth in others, modify the interactions among organisms, and alter the interactions between organisms and their physical and chemical environments. Patterns of infectious diseases are sensitive to these disturbances. Major processes affecting infectious disease reservoirs and transmission include, deforestation; land-use change; water management e.g. through dam construction, irrigation, uncontrolled urbanization 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.
Climate change, biodiversity and health
Biodiversity provides numerous ecosystem services that are crucial to human well-being at present and in the future. Climate is an integral part of ecosystem functioning and human health is impacted directly and indirectly by results of climatic conditions upon terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Marine biodiversity is affected by ocean acidification related to levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Terrestrial biodiversity is influenced by climate variability, such as extreme weather events (ie drought, flooding) that directly influence ecosystem health and the productivity and availability of ecosystem goods and services for human use. Longer term changes in climate affect the viability and health of ecosystems, influencing shifts in the distribution of plants, pathogens, animals, and even human settlements.
Documents and resources on biodiversity and health
UN Convention on Biological Diversity
Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Biodiversity Synthesis (2005) [pdf 13.4Mb]
Biodiversity: Its Importance to Human Health [pdf 990 kb]
Global Environment Outlook: environment for development
GEO4: Chapter 5 Biodiversity (2007) [pdf 1.96Mb]
The Contribution of Protected Areas to Human Health (2010) [pdf 6.23Mb]
- WHO Guideline on good agricultural and collection practices of traditional medicines (2003) [pdf ]