What Does Biodiversity Have to Do with Our Health?
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I recently read an interesting article by Markham Heid online that talked about the relationship of being in close proximity to the natural world and the health of our microbiome, and our own health.
“It is not surprising that we are now living on a planet that is in turmoil, and that this turmoil directly affects our health.”
The CDC has defined this close interconnectedness of our health with the health of our environment and all things living in it as the One Health concept: “A collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.” Up until now, we have been fixated on our own bodies, and for the most part, modern humans have not always had the Earth’s best interests at heart. It is therefore not surprising that we are now living on a planet that is in turmoil, and that this turmoil directly affects our health. We have been clearing ancient rain forests to make room for industrial agriculture and replacing them with monocultures of palm oil trees, soybeans and herds of cattle, while wildfires are raging through parts of North and South America, Australia and the Arctic, knocking out millions of species of plants and animals. These actions and events are not just impacting those directly affected areas on the planet, they are affecting the entire world population.
“There is a strong association between the number of bird species in a region and the well-being of its residents.”
Heid’s article references several interesting studies and findings. The first, from 2018, showed that “ecologically rich” city parks – defined as those that are home to a large array of plants, insects and animals – were perceived as more relaxing and restorative to visitors than less biologically diverse parks.1 A more recent study relating life-satisfaction scores and socio-economic data of more than 26,000 European citizens from 26 countries with macroecological data on the regional levels for species diversity and other nature characteristics, found a strong association between the number of bird species in a region and the well-being of its residents.2 Both of these studies’ data are consistent with other research that time spent in nature is associated with a person’s mental and physical health.3
One of the dominant indicators of the health of any ecosystem is biodiversity, however, while these studies show interesting associations between health and happiness measures with biodiversity, they don’t show any causality between natural, diverse environments and our health and well-being. The people that are exposed to such environments are likely self-selected, more outdoor types, follow a healthier lifestyle and have the financial means to live in an area with more natural surroundings. The subjects may also be healthier and/or happier to start out with if they live in such natural areas as opposed to living in big, busy urban centers.
“We shouldn’t forget how important biodiversity is for our diet, and indirectly for our own resilience and resistance to disease.”
I strongly believe that the preservation and restoration of biodiversity in our environment is crucial. The greater the diversity of any ecosystem, the more stable, resilient and resistant it is to natural disasters, to climate change and to the various perturbations caused by our modern lifestyle. But we shouldn’t forget how important biodiversity is for our diet, and indirectly for our own resilience and resistance to disease. Having spent time working at Patagonia Provisions before the pandemic struck, I vividly remember endless discussions about finding the link between health and biodiversity for food products. One of the most exciting things I was researching was Regenerative Organic Agriculture, or ROA for short. ROA is basically what you might think Organic should entail. ROA uses no artificial fertilizers or pesticides, uses cover crops, crop rotations, composting and does not till the soil. Neither conventional nor organic farming utilize these ancient techniques. Many of the farms we buy our produce from today, grow the same crop, season after season, in the same nutrient-deficient dirt, tilling it which allows much of the carbon to escape the soil and disrupts microbial communities. That dirt, which is growing the same crop year after year, is sterile and it is only possible to grow plants on it, by soaking it with chemical fertilizers and spraying the plants with pesticides and herbicides to replace the beneficial influence on plant health of a diverse soil microbiome.
“Interacting with airborne microbes shed by trees while walking in a forest has been implicated in public health.”
It has been proposed that microbes in the natural environment may play a role in the health benefits of the environment on our own well-being. Interacting with airborne microbes shed by trees while walking in a forest has also been implicated in public health.4, 5, 6 However, much research supports the fact that the greatest impact of the microbes in our environment happens early in life when the microbiome and our immune system are exposed to microbes living in the same household and shared by family members and pets, a crucial step in the programming of our immune system. On the other hand, the mental effects of being in a beautiful natural space, and the benefit of physical exercise being outdoors, hiking or doing other activities are probably most important in the adult.
“We are what we eat eats.”
While there is little research on ROA, I strongly believe that the biggest link between biodiversity and our own health & well-being is through the food we eat. If the soil in which our food is grown is teeming with diverse microbial activity, the plants have a more desirable nutrient content, providing a greater health benefit to us. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chounaird has an identical viewpoint. “Modern chickens mature to market size in about 40 days, which means we can produce a lot of chickens in very little time. But the birds, confined to cages and fed a diet of commercial chicken chow are tasteless and watery. In contrast, I once ate a carrot that was grown in organic soil and didn’t mature until it had survived two hard frosts – the complexity and concentration of flavor blew my mind! Compare a bite of free roaming buffalo, full of exquisite flavors from the diversity of native plants they feed on, to the insipid blandness of feedlot buffalo or beef. It’s no surprise that the foods with more flavor are the ones with significantly more nutritional value. We are what we eat eats.” (and this is not a typo!)7
That saying, “We are what we eat eats” is something everyone should be thinking of. If we are eating a salad, and the ingredients of that salad were grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or under hydroponic conditions, you are missing out on many of the thousands of phytonutrients that are crucially dependent on the activity of the soil microbes. Soil microbes interact with the root system of the plant, stimulating the production of molecules that are not only protecting the health of the plant, but crucial for the health benefit of the salad or other vegetables for us.
“Wiping out biodiversity not only affects the health of natural environments and all creatures living in them, but it puts us humans directly in the line of fire.”
Together with the reduced intake of plant-based foods in a typical Western diet, this depletion of phytonutrients as a consequence of industrial agriculture is a major reason for the progressively declining biodiversity of our gut microbiome making us susceptible to a host of chronic diseases. We need to realize that wiping out biodiversity not only affects the health of natural environments and all creatures living in them, but it puts us humans directly in the line of fire.
E. Dylan Mayer is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He is currently completing his master’s degree in Human Nutrition from Columbia University. Dylan is fascinated by the close interactions between nutrition, exercise and human health, especially with regard to the brain-gut-microbiome system – and regularly posts his content on his Instagram (@mayerwellness).