A GDP for nature: How measuring the health of the natural world might prevent the next pandemic

By Laura H. Kahn | February 25, 2021

A researcher takes a sample from an animal. Credit: CDC Global via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are to deadly infectious diseases. How we got here has been decades in the making, with plenty of warning signs along the way, from SARS to MERS to Ebola to Zika. And we’ve known for a long time what drives zoonotic diseases to spill over into humans: the wildlife trade, intensive agriculture, deforestation, to name a few factors. As human populations grow and demands for food and natural resources increase, we must anticipate more deadly pandemics, leading to more lockdowns, more fear, and more disruption, economic and otherwise, in our lives. We must remember that we interact with the natural world everyday by breathing air, drinking water, and eating plants and animals.

Many zoonotic diseases emerge either directly or indirectly through our interactions with animals, particularly the capturing, trading, raising, butchering, and eating of animals. A nation’s health and well-being are contingent upon meeting its population’s dietary needs. To ensure that our food systems don’t raise the risks of another pandemic, countries should prioritize the replenishment and protection of their natural resources and biodiverse ecosystems.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, underscored an emerging scientific consensus around a holistic approach to pandemic prevention that involves more than just human health and announced that the leaders of the world’s top economies would discuss a so-called “One Health” strategy at the upcoming G7 and G20 meetings. “We cannot protect human health without considering the impact of human activities that disrupt ecosystems, encroach on habitats, and further drive climate change,” he told a meeting of health officials this month.

“These activities include pollution, large-scale deforestation and extraction, the intensification of agriculture and livestock production, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, and the way we produce, consume, and trade food.”

The natural world and human health. During the late 1990s, the deadly Nipah virus emerged after millions of hectares of tropical forest in Malaysia were destroyed to clear land for pig farms. Displaced fruit bats sought nourishment in orchards near the pig farms, contaminating fruit with their urine and saliva. The pigs ate the fruit, developed severe respiratory illnesses and neurological abnormalities, and subsequently spread the virus to farm workers. The outbreak devastated the Malaysian pig-farming industry, required the culling of over a million pigs, and cost the farmers and government hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end, the virus sickened 265 people and killed 105. Other South and Southeast Asian, countries, in particular Bangladesh, have since reported Nipah virus cases and the World Health Organization estimates the case fatality rate of the virus to be between 40 and 75 percent.

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Many Nipah virus survivors suffered chronic neurological symptoms. The outbreak illustrates that allowing biodiverse ecosystems to be destroyed promotes disease emergence with potentially disastrous consequences. And of course, it’s not just food production in Malaysia that creates health and environmental risks.

Intensive animal agriculture production in the United States, using facilities called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), poses tremendous threats to human, animal, environmental, and ecosystem health. Raising thousands or tens of thousands of animals together produces massive quantities of manure containing hundreds of pathogens, including Salmonella and E.coli, that can cause foodborne and waterborne illnesses.

Manure is commonly spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer, but it also contaminates the soils with antibiotic resistant bacteria and leaches into waterways, causing algae overgrowth of lakes and streams leading to dead fish. Worsening climate change and severe storms flood manure lagoons risking widespread contamination of surrounding environments. Not only does manure contaminate soil and water, it also contaminates the atmosphere. Microbes in manure release methane and nitrous oxide which are 23 and 300 times more potent in trapping heat than carbon dioxide and contribute over 7 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions.

We need to reassess what we value. The natural world is essential for our health and well-being, but we don’t value it properly. Instead, we exploit it until it bites us back. We must change our values if we want to prevent the next pandemic.

Measuring environmental health. The most common metric for measuring national wealth is the gross domestic product, or GDP. GDP measures a nation’s economic prosperity, its total value of services and goods produced in one year. But this metric provides a narrow picture of national wealth and ignores the destructive costs that we impose upon our natural world.

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One option might be to use something like a One Health calculus as an addition to the GDP. One Health is a term used to describe the inextricable linkages between human, animal, plant, environmental, and ecosystem health. A One Health calculus might measure the status of a nation’s natural resources, the purity of its environments, the biodiversity of its ecosystems, the sustainability of its agriculture, the health of its flora and fauna, the resiliency of its food security, and the life expectancies of its peoples.

In fact, a group of researchers in China published a conceptually similar statistic last year, what they call the Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP). The statistic aggregates the contributions of nature to national wealth. As the researchers envision it, the GEP would be analogous but separate to the GDP. “Having measures of GEP can help to overcome the bias in public and private sector decision making, currently dominated by considerations of economic growth to the exclusion of important ecosystem services and the conservation of ecosystem assets,” the authors wrote.

Maintaining a better grasp of ecological health around the world could help governments take necessary steps to preserve ecosystems and promote sustainable development. Preventing the next pandemic may depend on us doing so.

Some research shows that infectious disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. There’s a chance that a future pandemic could be even worse than the COVID-19 crisis. After all, the factors that can drive outbreaks, including ecological damage, are worsening. “We’re pushing nature to its limit,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’ Health Emergencies Programme, said recently. “Someday, when we’re not here, our children will wake up in world that when there is a pandemic that has a much higher case-fatality rate and that could bring our civilization to its very knees.”

It’s time to redouble our efforts to protect the natural world; ultimately, that’s how we can protect ourselves. A One Health calculus added to nations’ GDPs would require them to value nature’s essential role in national wealth—and health


As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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