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Embracing the Nexus Between Human, Animal, and Planetary Health and Wellbeing

by Dr. Hope Ferdowsian

May 9, 2023

It only becomes more clear that we’re connected.

We see these connections in the crises we face: patterns of violence, disease risk, hunger and malnutrition, the climate emergency, pollution.

As I’ve shared through multiple opportunities to address UN bodies, embracing the nexus between the health and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet is vital to solving our interconnected global health threats.

Here are a few examples:

Violence and the Nexus

Violence prevention is critical to the creation of a sustainable society and to our future on this planet.

Interpersonal and community violence against animals are linked to violence against humans, and several historians have documented how the poor treatment of animals may serve as a gateway to human atrocities.

Animal cruelty is also a predictor of future violence, including crimes of sexual violence and homicide.

Communicable Disease Risk and the Nexus

The COVID-19 pandemic has directly claimed nearly seven million human lives worldwide, and its other impacts will be long-lasting.

Although the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 are still under investigation, the largest body of evidence points to an animal market as the early epicenter of the pandemic. 

Nearly three-quarters of new or emerging diseases in humans come from animals. These diseases stem from ecosystem degradation, habitat loss and fragmentation, biodiversity loss, encroachment into wildlife habitats, the commercial trade in wild animals, and intensive animal farming—all of which threaten people, animals, and the planet.

Noncommunicable Disease Risk and the Nexus

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) also threaten people, animals, and the planet. Adults and children are increasingly affected by NCDs such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

NCD risks often stem from unsustainable environmental systems and practices, such as those related to agriculture, commercialization of the food system, and urbanization. 

That’s why the World Health Organization has recommended that policies focus on creating “supportive population-based environments through public policies that promote the availability and accessibility of a variety of low-fat, high-fiber foods” and promote “more fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts and whole grains . . . cutting the amount of fatty, sugary foods in the diet; moving from saturated animal-based fats to unsaturated vegetable-oil based fats.”

Hunger and Malnutrition and the Nexus

Food systems are critical to addressing hunger and malnutrition and efforts to achieve food security. 

Land and grain availability are influenced by climate change, war and conflict, a growing human population, and changing production and consumption patterns. 

Industrial production of animal products—particularly meat and dairy products from cows, sheep and lambs, pigs, and chickens—relies heavily on feed grains and land use

Studies have shown that if grains used in industrial animal farming were used to feed humans directly, these grains could feed more than 3 billion people and free up billions of hectares for natural vegetation, forests, and ecosystems.

Climate Change and the Nexus

All of the issues mentioned above are inseparable from the climate emergency, which poses a risk to humans and other animals—especially to the most vulnerable and marginalized populations and communities. 

The recent IPCC Climate Change 2023 AR6 Synthesis Report recognizes the interdependence of climate, ecosystems and biodiversity, and human societies. 

The report notes that rapid, far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are needed to secure a livable and sustainable future for all

Just transitions are especially needed in the energy and agriculture sectors. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods, primarily due to methane production and the loss of carbon sinks through the destruction of rainforests and other terrestrial habitats, and through the loss of marine life.

Pollution and the Nexus

Air, water, and soil pollution also illustrate the importance of embracing the nexus. 

Air, water, and soil pollutants cause three times more deaths than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

Waste from farmed animals contributes significantly to soil and water pollution, and industrialized animal farming—and the use of agrochemicals—contributes to air pollution.

These forms of pollution also increase the risk of infectious diseases and toxic exposures.

For example, an estimated 92 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds safety limits, according to the World Health Organization.

Crises Offer Opportunities

Fortunately, crises offer opportunities. Within medicine and public health, one of the best times to intervene is during or immediately after a crisis. Each of the interconnected problems I’ve described also has interconnected solutions.

More international entities, including the UN Environment Assembly, the UN Secretary-General, and the One Health High-Level Expert Panel are recognizing that local and global policies and practices must address the nexus.

But these entities are mostly following a One Health approach, which doesn’t go far enough.

One Health is an interdisciplinary approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the interdependent health of humans, animals, and ecosystems. 

In the Harvard Public Health Magazine and CABI’s One Health journal, I recently wrote about how an ecological view of health that advances the rights, health, and wellbeing of humans, other animals, and the environment—rather than a human-centered view of health—is critical to address the many public health threats we face—threats that are linked to whether we will have a sustainable future. 

Embracing the nexus (and a Just One Health approach) is vital to creating a world where all life can thrive and where the most vulnerable are protected.

Dr. Hope Ferdowsian is an internal medicine, preventive medicine, and global public health physician, and president of Phoenix Zones Initiative.

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