For the Health of People and the Planet
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We are facing two major challenges today regarding the health and well-being of humans on a global level: the rapidly growing burden of chronic disease in first-world countries and the devastating effect of climate change on the life and property of many people around the world. Interestingly enough, these two concepts are closely intertwined, as demonstrated by recent scientific literature.
Chronic disease is greatly influenced by environmental factors, with the leading cause being poor nutritional choices. A largely plant-based, organic diet rich in whole foods is associated with better health, as has been well established in many different studies. The negative effects of increased cultivation of livestock on the environment are well documented, and the burden of overconsumption of animal foods and underconsumption of fiber-rich plant foods on the health of people and their microbiome have been trending topics in the scientific literature for the past decade. Furthermore, the health of the soil and its effect on the quality of foods, which in turn affects the gut microbiome of the people eating these foods also has been the subject of recent literature on the so-called “One Health” concept. This concept encompasses the essence of the content of this article, namely the interconnectedness of planetary health and the health of people, as well as ways of improving both. There is strong evidence alluding to the fact that the healthier we are as people by making the right lifestyle and consumption choices, the healthier we can make our planet with regards to combating climate change and reducing global warming.
“The negative effects of increased livestock production on the environment are many, the main ones being the destruction of native ecosystems for livestock grazing purposes, including large-scale forest destruction, as well as substantially increased, toxic global greenhouse gas emissions due to livestock cultivation.”
In contrast to what has been advised from an environmental and climate perspective, meat production has increased threefold in the past 50 years, and dairy production has doubled. The negative effects of increased livestock production on the environment are many, the main ones being the destruction of native ecosystems for livestock grazing purposes, including large-scale forest destruction in countries of the Southern Hemisphere, as well as substantially increased, toxic global greenhouse gas emissions due to livestock cultivation. In addition to increases in carbon dioxide emissions, livestock production accounts for 50% of methane and 60% of nitrous oxide pollution, both of which have a severely increased global warming potential in comparison to carbon dioxide, 25 and 298 times the amount respectively. Furthermore, inefficiencies in livestock agricultural practices contribute to nitrogen pollution in waste-water, leading to acid rain and toxic algal blooms that can cause local dead zones in marine life. Given the wealth of scientific literature on this topic and growing awareness of the devastating potential of the global temperature rise, it is of critical importance that we start shifting the focus toward making nutritional recommendations that encourage the consumption of plant-based foods and reduced consumption of animal products, especially if sourced from cattle or pork. The smaller the animal (i.e. chicken or fish), the less of an environmental impact its farming causes. Making such changes does not require a full switch to a vegetarian diet but can consist of just incorporating more plant-based foods and reducing one’s amount of red meat greatly, and other meats and fish slightly. The EAT-Lancet Commission is a science-based global platform for food system transformation and suggests that the required shift to sustainable and healthy diets by 2050 will need to bring about a greater than 50% reduction in global consumption of red meat and greater than 100% increase in consumption of plant-based foods, including nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For this transformation to take place, educational institutions, physicians, and the media will need to focus on making recommendations about dietary choices to the common public. The increasing pressures of meeting the Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate action with the goal of keeping the global temperature rise at well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels by 2030 will be another driving force for making such changes by addressing policies globally.
“This direct connection of soil microbial health and the health of our own microbiome … is an important but often overlooked concept in addressing both climate change and the chronic disease epidemic.”
Another, less discussed factor of the interconnectedness of planetary and human health includes the microbiota inhabiting the soil and our bodies. The health of our soil is of critical importance in its effect on the nutritional quality of our foods. This is grounded in the relationship between the microbes in the soil and the polyphenol and nutrient content in foods grown in this soil. Pesticide and chemical fertilizer-treated soil often lacks the microbiota that foster the plant’s production of polyphenols and nutrients which are associated with better gut health in humans consuming those plants. This direct connection of soil microbial health and the health of our internal microbiome, which is influenced by the plants we ingest is an important but often overlooked concept in addressing both climate change and the chronic disease epidemic. The microbial ecosystem in the soil is greatly influenced by agricultural practices, in particular by sustainable organic agriculture.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the One Health concept focuses on achieving optimal health outcomes by taking into account the interconnectedness of people, animals, plants and their shared environment. It works at the local, regional, national, and global levels. This multisectoral and transdisciplinary perspective on health is one based on the concept of wholeness rather than separation, with the latter being the case in much of traditional Western medicine. Isolation of a particular symptom rather than the recognition of the interconnectedness of the organism and the environment it lives in most arguably is one of the most prevalent flaws in our current Western healthcare system. With rapidly evolving research in the fields of neuroscience, nutrition, and epigenetics, it has become clear even in Western health sciences that an all-encompassing approach to curing disease will involve more than expensive symptomatic treatments. This approach has to be sustainable and targeted at the root cause of the problem, by addressing diet, exercise, stress management, sleep habits, and social connections.
The insights gained about the benefits of nutritional approaches based on organically and sustainable grown plant-based foods should be incorporated into public outreach, education of health professionals, and policy making. The One Health concept makes intuitive sense to anyone who resonates with the fact that we are a part of nature, and given that, interconnected with our environment at every level.