Today the battle to defend biodiversity has become crucial, because it is the battle to preserve the survival of the entire planet, as well as humanity itself: what we are facing today is the irreparable loss of entire ecosystems, a global climate crisis that threatens us all and the development of infectious diseases with devastating consequences, as demonstrated by what we are experiencing these days. Let us take stock.
THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF THE INDUSTRIAL FOOD SYSTEM, HOW FACTORY FARMING AND INTENSIVE MONOCULTURES MAKE US WEAKER (AND DEVASTATE THE PLANET)
In a recent interview, evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, author of the book Big Farms Make Big Flu (2016), made it clear that “the real danger of any new outbreak is the refusal to understand that COVID-19 is not an isolated incident. The increase in the presence of viruses is linked to food production and the profit of multinationals. Anyone wishing to understand why viruses are becoming increasingly dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. Currently, few governments and few scientists are willing to do so.”
THE ZOONOTIC ORIGIN OF THE VIRUS
Many recent epidemics and pandemics are of zoonotic origin, i.e. they are transmitted by animals and there is now evidence that intensive farming can facilitate transmission from animals to humans. For example, one of the first cases was the outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia in 1998, in connection with the intensification of pig production on the edge of tropical forests, where fruit bats live. The risk of spillover, i.e. the jump of the virus from animal to man, increases in the case of human activities such as the development of intensive breeding and agricultural activities; or with the trafficking, legal or illegal, of wild animals that are then brought to markets. However, the interaction between environmental change and the outbreak of infectious diseases has not received sufficient attention so far.
SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMAN ACTION ON NATURE AND THE SPREAD OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES
A month ago, when the COVID-19 emergency began to hit Italy, a group of international scientists, under the coordination of La Sapienza University, published an article in which the spread of infectious diseases is linked to man’s action on nature. In particular, it investigates the similarities and recurrences that bring the current pandemic closer to a series of recent episodes that have inflamed large areas of the planet: the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the MERS CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), the well-known Sars and H1N1, and the Zika virus that has mosquitoes as a vector. In this regard, it is useful to remember that deforestation, with the upheaval of the natural balance it brings with it, has also increased the risk of malaria in Africa and South America, because mosquitoes spread unchallenged.
THE WWF REPORT: DESTRUCTION OF BIODIVERSITY = EXPOSURE TO PANDEMICS
The WWF provides us with a clear and comprehensible picture of the scientific evidence that predicted the unfortunately grave situation in which we find ourselves today with its report “Pandemics, the boomerang effect of the destruction of ecosystems”, according to which, among other things, “while the destruction of habitats and biodiversity creates favorable conditions for the spread of emerging zoonotic diseases, the creation of artificial habitats or, more simply, environments poor in nature and with a high human density can further facilitate it”. And emerging diseases have quadrupled in the last half-century.
LET’S NOT FORGET THE CLIMATE CRISIS
The climate crisis also has its effects on the spread of viruses, because high temperatures and drought produce more fires (we all remember the devastation of Australia a few months ago) and loss of ecosystems, more air pollution and a greater burden of respiratory diseases, as stated in a study by the Harvard Global Health Institute. We had a dramatic confirmation of this in these days, with the position paper of the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine where the particularly high incidence of cases of viral infection in Lombardy is related to the concentrations of atmospheric particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). “Particulate matter acts as a carrier for many chemical and biological contaminants, including viruses. […] There is a relationship between exceedances of the limits recorded in the period 10-29 February and the number of cases infected by COVID-19 updated to 3 March, considering an intermediate time delay of 14 days, equal to the incubation time of the virus”.
The One Health approach promoted by the World Health Organization will be crucial to prevent future pandemics. The approach aims to design and implement programmes, policies and research in synergy between different sectors (public health, environment, animal health, agriculture, for example) to achieve better results for public health. One of the particularly important areas of work concerns precisely the prevention of zoonoses. And if the world does not implement an integrated approach to mitigate the consequences of the emergence of environmental change and the climate crisis, the capacities of countries to achieve sustainable development goals, and thus the hope for a better world, will be compromised forever.