Ecological Services and Human Health

Many of us have had the experience of briefing an elected representative on climate change and have mentioned the impact of climate change on ecological services. This is often met with a glazed look, so we go onto explain that these services are essential to human health and life—they are our life support system. If the politician has not lost interest the question may come forth, “What do you mean? What are they?” We then quote the standard reply that they are provision of food, fiber, purified water, degradation of wastes and pollutants, recycling of nutrients, stabilization of climate.

At the population health forum in Adelaide Senator Nick Minchin, well known for his views on climate change, waxed eloquently on the importance of ecological services; their destruction by population growth was not sustainable. He was talking about the impact of humans on land and the deterioration of soil! His understanding of the issue became  my recognition of how to offer the explanation to politicians. It is through the soil-food-economics linkage.

Despite the complexity of soil, it is the most easily understood ecological service. It consists of minerals, nutrients, organic matter (in the form of carbon) and thousands of species of organisms. It is an ecosystem providing an ecological service to all life including humans. Desertification is the death of this ecosystem due to deforestation, changes in rain patterns, or a general lack of water, often related to climate change. Desertification occurs as a land-mass dries up, the vegetation on top the soil withers away, the microbes in the soil die, the resulting soil erodes, and its carbon migrates into the atmosphere in the form of CO2.

There is emerging evidence that soil forms a huge carbon sink, probably greater than that of forests and this carbon is now being released into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate, a feed back loop which will hasten climate change. Perhaps this is the most dangerous tipping point?
Read Don't Sleep on Soil: Huge Carbon Sink is Leaking click here

Clearly world’s soil ecosystems are deteriorating at a time of population growth and projections that world food production will be insufficient within a few decades. It becomes an economic issue to governments which mostly think in economic terms alone. For this reason much work is being done to place an economic value on an ecosystem service. For those interested read the 382 page report to the French government on the methodology. click here  Ecosystems in France were valued at €600 per hectare/per year for pastureland to €2000 per hectare/per year for some types of forest. There are obvious traps in such an approach for an ecosystem valued at 600 Euros per annum cannot compete in financial value with a developer and a hotel that will destroy the ecosystem. It is more appropriate not to value and adopt the position dictated by global environmental change, that humanity cannot allow any ecosystem to be destroyed. Value cannot be placed on survival.

So where does biodiversity fit into this discussion? Biodiversity is the variety of all life-forms: the different forms of animals, plants, and micro-organisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems of which they form a part. The concept is useful because it is more easily understood by the public. Unfortunately because the relationship to ecological service is not appreciated by governments, many of which still look upon preservation of diversity as a luxury and a task that can be left to the environmentalists. Despite all the knowledge that thousands of species are moving to extinction, it receives inadequate action.

This neglect is evidenced by a study from the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute. click here This ranked most of the world’s countries for their environmental impact.  The indicators used were natural forest loss, habitat conversion, fisheries and other marine captures, fertiliser use, water pollution, carbon emissions from land use and species threat. Australia was 9th of the ten worst counties (Brazil, USA, China, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, India, Russia, Australia and Peru) which mirror earlier studies indicating the massive biodiversity loss in Australia. An important finding in the Adelaide study was the lack of relationship between wealth and performance which negates the oft quoted political battle cry of "let’s get the economy right and we will have money for the environment"

Some of the concepts discussed in this brief article are well explained in The human health implications of biodiversity loss a presentation to the Lowy Institute by Dr Aaron Bernstein. He describes the critical importance of maintaining biodiversity to human health and the health of the world's ecosystems. Halting the increasing rate of biodiversity loss, he argues, requires rethinking how humans do business with the biosphere. Innovation is needed in accounting of the goods and services nature provides humanity. Dr Bernstein is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and the Center for Health and Global Environment. Listen here

Postscript May 11 Planet Ark click here

World governments have failed to meet a 2010 target to halt biodiversity loss and action must be taken to preserve the species and ecosystems upon which human life depends, a United Nations report said on Monday.
In a move endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly, more than 190 countries committed in 2002 to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.
But the report said: "The diversity of living things on the planet continues to be eroded as a result of human activity."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "The consequences of this collective failure, if it is not quickly corrected, will be severe for us all."

David Shearman