Biodiversity is the variety of living species of flora and fauna. Without it, we would have no agriculture, forestry, or life as we know it. Halting biodiversity loss is a must for human survival. In doing so, we invest in people, their lives, their wellbeing, the ecosystem, and in the shared environment we live in.
India is the world's eighth most biodiverse region with a 0.46 BioD score on diversity index, 102,718 species of fauna and 23.39 per cent of the nation's geographical area under forest and tree cover in 2020. India — a megadiverse country with only 2.4 per cent of the world's land area — accounts for 7-8 per cent of all recorded species including over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. These 91,000 animal species represent about 6.5 per cent of the world's fauna. These include 60,000 insect species, 2,456 fish species, 1,230 bird species, 372 mammal species, over 440 reptile species, 200 amphibian species with largest concentration in Western Ghats, and 500 mollusks.
India hosts four biodiversity hotspots: the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Indo-Burma region and the Sundaland (which includes the Nicobar group of Islands). These hotspots have numerous endemic species.
Biodiversity supports food security and sustained livelihoods through overall genetic diversity. Conservation of biological diversity leads to the conservation of essential ecological diversity to preserve the continuity of food chains. Conservation of biodiversity is important because biodiversity is the key indicator of the health of an ecosystem. A wide variety of species will cope better with threats than a limited number of them in large populations. Even if certain species are affected by pollution, climate change or human activities, the ecosystem may adapt and survive.
Just over the past two decades, industrial activity and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources have led to dramatic erosion of biological diversity. Niger has lost 80 per cent of its freshwater wetlands in the past 20 years. Two-thirds of Asian wildlife habitats have been destroyed. The most acute losses have been reported in the Indian sub-continent, China, Vietnam, and Thailand.
The ecosystem is a complex web of interdependency where every living creature depends on the other for survival. Preserving biodiversity is therefore not just a mission statement, it is an imperative that we must strive for. The Global Risks Report 2022 also reiterates the societal and environmental risks as the most concerning risks for the next five years while – over a 10-year horizon – the health of the planet dominates concerns, i.e., the environmental risks are perceived to be the five most critical long-term threats to the world as well as the most potentially damaging to people and planet, with “climate action failure”, “extreme weather”, and “biodiversity loss” ranking as the top three most severe risks along with “debt crises” and “geoeconomic confrontations” - which also affect biodiversity - as among the most severe risks over the next 10 years.
The global pandemic has also resulted from human meddling with nature. Food production is the single most important activity we engage in. Our current model of food production must be mended as it is responsible for one third of greenhouse gas emissions. We must not turn a blind eye to the impact that food production has on the planet's wildlife.
As much as 70 per cent of all emerging and re-emerging pathogens are zoonotic, jumping from animals to human beings. The degradation of natural lands and habitats — or land conversion for human use — leads to increase in such contacts and, therefore, disease transmission (known as disease “spillover”) also increases. We really do not know when the next disease will emerge.
COVID-19 has reinforced the need for massive efforts to achieve planetary health by restoring degraded ecosystems through sustained institutional, policy, and government responses to land degradation to address the ultimate causes. We need coordinated policy agendas that simultaneously encourage more sustainable production and consumption which will help us in reducing – and reversing –degradation by adopting landscape-wide approaches that integrate the development of agriculture, forests, energy, water, and infrastructure agendas. Further degradation of land and habitats can be prevented by conserving and restoring the ecosystems which will also prevent the emergence of other infectious diseases. Conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, and overall, the One Health approach will therefore promote sustainable health.
The One Health Approach offers plausible answers. It is a concept which propounds that plant, animal and human health are inter-related and that humans and animals cannot remain healthy if they do not live in a healthy environment. The approach calls for multi-sectoral collaborations to achieve better public health outcomes. The success of the One Health approach depends not only on the research and collaboration of scientists in labs and universities but also on engaging the local communities where zoonotic spill over and disease outbreaks at human–wildlife–livestock interfaces are most likely to occur.
The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has forced the global community to drive real change as One Health is being taken up as the focal agenda at multi-lateral fora such as the G7 and the G20. But more needs to be done on the ground, and with great urgency, to reform the way we source food and not just mitigate its impact on the environment but also improve animal and plant health.
While it is heartening to note the increase in awareness on One Health, more must be done to elaborate on the specifics of what it entails and what actions organizations and people must take for implementing it effectively. While there are some public health priorities like malaria elimination, which have streamlined funding and set of actions, priorities like implementing the One Health framework often sound vague. We must move ahead by clearly defining the problems, the specific solutions offered by One Health, and creating a roadmap with timeline indicating how these must be implemented on-ground.
There is also the challenge of losing the integrated perspective of tackling animal and plant health issues. In addressing health challenges like Malaria or rabies, we often implement solutions in silos. Implementing the One Health approach requires us to have an integrated perspective, solving issues across the four compartments – agriculture, wildlife, livestock, and human beings. We must gain comprehensive understanding of all these four compartments, their intricacies and the incentives that drive certain behaviors within and across.
This broad-based understanding should then drive us to solve specific issues like rabies, tuberculosis and foot and mouth disease or any disease “X” the incursion of which might happen any time. When our solutions are built on existing systems, be it the forestry and wildlife professionals, veterinarians and technicians, and the spectrum of medical and paramedical workforce that handle routine issues, they tend to integrate and sustain better. We need programs that bring the full spectrum of these stakeholders together in rabies or tuberculosis control that spans the three compartments (human, animal, and wildlife), each of them with their own mandates and incentives lines in such a way that they complement instead of working against each other.
Lastly, this is the opportune time when — instead of academic exercises and esoteric debates — the nations should systematically plan and implement pilots of One Health across the country and beyond the borders so we can learn fast and protect the environment and people. In this context, it is significant that the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying recently launched the ‘One Health’ programme in Uttarakhand. The approach includes wildlife, animal and human surveillance, workforce development, laboratory strengthening and networking, outbreak detection, digital animal disease reporting and response, biosecurity in animal production systems and driving community awareness. More such pilots are set to be implemented across states, which will build understanding and lead to progress.
As its most developed species, human beings are custodians of the planet and it is vital for us to protect the plant and animal life on it, so we may survive in harmony.
The author is Project Director, One Health Support Unit, Department of Animal Husbandry & Dairying, Government of India. Views are personal.