One Planet, One Health – Connected through Biodiversity

Towards a new food model

Vandana Shiva

Il·lustració © Riki Blanco

The coronavirus health emergency has made us see that the planet’s health and our health are inseparable. We must deglobalise the food system that is driving climate change, species extinction and a systemic health emergency. We need biodiversity intensification and rewilding of our farms, without chemicals. Government regulation is fundamental to ensuring public health for all.

We are one Earth Family on one planet, healthy in our diversity and interconnectedness. The planet’s health and our health are inseparable. As Dr Martin Luther King reminded us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We can be linked worldwide through the spread of disease like the coronavirus when we invade the homes of other species, manipulate plants and animals for commercial profit and greed, and spread monocultures.

Or we can be connected through health and wellbeing for all by protecting the diversity of ecosystems and protecting the biodiversity, integrity, and self-organisation (so-called autopoiesis) of all living beings, including humans.

New diseases are being created because a globalised, industrialised, inefficient food and agriculture model is invading the ecological habitat of other species and manipulating animals and plants with no respect for their integrity and their health. The illusion of the Earth and her beings as raw material to be exploited for profit is creating one world connected through disease.

The health emergency that the coronavirus is waking us up to is connected to the emergency of extinction and the disappearance of species, and it is connected to the climate emergency. All emergencies are rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric world view of humans as separate from, and superior to other beings who we can own, manipulate and control. It is also rooted in an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth and limitless greed, which systematically violates planetary boundaries, and the ecosystem and species integrity.

As forests are destroyed, as our farms become industrial monocultures to produce toxic, nutritionally empty commodities, and our diets become degraded through industrial processing with synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering in labs, we get connected through disease. Instead, we should be connected through biodiversity within, and outside us, through a continuum of health through and in biodiversity.

The health emergency calls for a systems approach based on interconnectedness

With the health emergency engendered by the coronavirus, we need to look at systems that spread disease, and systems that create heath in a holistic, systems approach. A systems approach to healthcare in times of the corona crisis would address not just the virus, but also how new epidemics are spreading as we invade the homes of other beings. It also needs to address the co-morbidity conditions related to non-communicable chronic diseases that are spreading due to non-sustainable, anti-nature, unhealthy industrial food systems.

As we wrote in the manifesto Food for Health by the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture, we need to discard “policies and practices that lead to the physical and moral degradation of the food system while destroying our health and endangering the planet’s ecological stability, and endangering the biogenetic survival of life on the planet.”

We must now deglobalise the food system that is driving climate change, species extinction and a systemic health emergency. Globalised, industrialised food systems spread disease. Monocultures spread disease. Deforestation is spreading disease.

The health emergency is forcing us to deglobalise. We can do it when there is a political will. Let us make this deglobalisation permanent. Let us make a transition to localisation. Localisation of biodiverse agriculture and food systems grows health and reduces the ecological footprint. Localisation leaves space for diverse species, diverse cultures and diverse local living economies to thrive.

A wealth of biodiversity in our forests, our farms, our food, and our gut microbiome makes the planet and her diverse species, including humans, healthier and more resilient to pests and diseases.

Il·lustració © Riki Blanco Illustration © Riki Blanco

The invasion of forests and the violation of species integrity are spreading new diseases

The Earth is for all beings. Protecting the rights of Mother Earth is a health imperative. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged as we destroy the habitat of species and manipulate them for profit. According to the WHO, the Ebola virus moved from wild animals to humans: “The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.” As New Internationalist reports, “From 2014-16, an unprecedented Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa. Now scientists have linked the outbreak to rapid deforestation.” 

As Professor John E. Fa of Manchester Metropolitan University, a senior research associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), asserts, “Emerging diseases are linked to environmental alterations caused by humans. Humans are in much more contact with animals when you open up a forest… You have a balance of animals, viruses and bacteria and you alter that when you open up a forest.”

The Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) is a highly pathogenic virus that spread from monkeys to humans through virus-infected ticks as deforestation shrunk the forest habitat of monkeys. “The KFD virus is a pathogen that has long existed as part of an established ecosystem in South Kanara [Karnataka, India]. Human modification of that ecosystem through deforestation caused the epidemic occurrence of the disease.”

The coronavirus has also come from bats. As Sonia Shah says, “When we cut down the forests that the bats live in, they don’t just go away; they come and live in the trees in our backyards and farms.” Prof Dennis Carroll of Cornell acknowledges that as we penetrate deeper into ecozones we do not occupy before, we create the potential for spread of infection. 

“Mad cow” disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is an infectious disease caused by deformed proteins called “prions” that affect the brains of cattle. Cows contracted the disease when they were fed rendered meat of dead infected cows. When beef from infected cows was fed to humans, they were infected with the CJD. The prion is a self-infective agent, not a virus or bacteria. It illustrates that when animals are manipulated and their integrity and right to health is violated, new diseases can emerge.

Antibiotic resistance is growing in humans because of the intensive use of chemicals on factory farms. Antibiotic resistance markers in GMOs could also be contributing to antibiotic resistance. Horizontal gene transfer across species is a scientifically known phenomenon. This is why we have biosafety science and biosafety regulations like the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity and national biosafety laws.

Diseases are moving from non-human animals to human animals as we destroy the habitat and homes of wild species. We violate the integrity of species as we manipulate animals on factory farms and genetically modify plants through genetic engineering with viral promoters and antibiotic resistance markers.

The illusion that plants and animals are machines for manufacturing raw materials that become fuel for our bodies, which are also machines, has created the industrial agriculture and food paradigm, which is at the root of the explosion of chronic diseases in our times.

A toxic, industrialised, globalised food system is leading to an explosion of non-communicable chronic diseases

In the last few decades, non-communicable chronic diseases are spreading exponentially and killing people in millions. Toxins and industrial food systems are a major contributor to chronic diseases. Almost ten million people die from cancer annually. Every sixth death in the world is due to cancer, the second leading cause of death.

Diabetes, a metabolic disorder linked to diet, is the seventh leading cause of death. One point seven million people die annually due to diabetes complications that lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation.

The risks from infectious diseases like the coronavirus increase exponentially when combined with the co-morbidity of chronic diseases. The mortality rate of the coronavirus is 1.6%. If one has cardiac problems, it increases to 13.2%. With diabetes it increases to 9.2%. With cancer it is 7.6%. Governments need to take the WHO as seriously on cancer as they have done in the coronavirus epidemic.

The WHO’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has identified glyphosate made by Bayer/Monsanto as being a probable carcinogen. This advice needs to be taken seriously. The corporate attack on IARC is contributing to the health emergency. It must be stopped. Thousands of cancer cases linked to glyphosate have been filed in US courts. In the cases of Johnson Edwin Hardeman, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, the courts have ruled in favour of the cancer victims. Governments need to ban chemicals that are causing harm. And they need to hold the Poison Cartel accountable and liable for the harm they have done.

My agriculture journey began with the Bhopal genocide that killed thousands when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide leaked. This corporation is now Dow, which has merged with Dupont. The Poison Cartel that has created toxic diseases by pushing globalised industrialised agriculture is also Big Pharma. They spread disease and gain from it. Bayer is a pharmaceutical company and an agrichemical chemical selling toxic pesticides. Syngenta is a toxics company and, like Novartis, sells pharmaceuticals. Big Pharma is using the health emergency to expand its markets and profits.

The protection that governments give to the Poison Cartel must go. Instead, governments at all levels must work with citizens and communities to create poison-free food and farming that promotes people’s health with the same force with which they have taken action on the coronavirus.

We need to get chemicals that have created a health disaster out of the food system.

Governments need to follow the advice of the UN and the WHO on all health-related issues with the same enthusiasm they have shown with the coronavirus.

The high costs of treating new chronic diseases

The Food for Health manifesto summarises the high costs of treating new chronic diseases that have grown exponentially in the last two decades with the spread of industrial food and farming through globalisation. Some of the most significant data in this regard, as presented in the manifesto, are outlined below:

“Already in 2012, a study quantified the impact on health and costs related to the damage resulting from exposure to 133 pesticides applied in 24 European countries in 2003, equivalent to almost 50% of the total mass of pesticides applied in that year. Only 13 substances, applied to three classes of crops (grapes/vines, fruit trees, vegetables) contributed, according to this survey, to 90% of the overall health impacts due to a loss of about 2,000 years of life (corrected for disability) in Europe every year, corresponding to an annual economic cost of 78 million euros. In 2012, a survey was published that assessed the costs of acute pesticide poisoning in the state of Parana, Brazil, concluding that the total cost of acute pesticide poisoning amounts to $149 million each year. That is to say, for every dollar spent on the purchase of pesticides in this state, about $1.28 is spent due to the costs externalised by poisoning.” (….)

To come up with more recent data and come closer to the European reality, we can turn to research assessing the burden of diseases and costs related to exposure to endocrine disruptors in Europe: a panel of experts evaluated with “strong probability” that every year in Europe 13 million IQ points are lost due to prenatal exposure to organophosphates, and that there are an additional 59,300 cases of intellectual disability. Since it has been estimated that each point of IQ lost for prenatal exposure to mercury is worth about €17,000, we can assume similar costs for those caused by organophosphorus.

The health consequences of maladapted modernity, driven by commercial food systems are currently being experienced in epidemic proportions across the world. Apart from premature death and prolonged disability, diseases resulting from nutritionally poor diets are forcing people to seek expensive health care, which is often unaffordable. Commercial health care systems are beneficiaries of these modern epidemics, by offering technology intensive and high cost tests and treatments for health disorders that could and should have been easily prevented through good nutrition and a healthy environment. The merger of Bayer and Monsanto implies that the same corporations who sell the chemicals that are causing diseases also sell pharmaceuticals as cures for the diseases they have caused.”

And it is the planet and people who bear the burden of disease.

Il·lustració © Riki Blanco Illustration © Riki Blanco

Health is a right, and government regulation is a matter of life and death

As the current crisis shows, government regulation is a matter of life and death. And the precautionary principle is more vital than ever before. It should not be abandoned with the false claim that “time is our biggest enemy” and no manipulation of living organisms should be hastily introduced into the environment with little or no testing.

There is an attempt to undermine the precautionary principle through free trade agreements like the United States and European Union’s so-called “mini-deal” on trade. According to US trade negotiators, the Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and American farm interests, the precautionary principle must go, and now is the time to finally axe it through the US-EU trade deal.

Governments need to ensure biosafety and improve the pertinent regulations, and food safety assessments should not be influenced by the industry that benefits from manipulating living organisms and suppresses scientific evidence of harm.The evidence of such manipulation of research and the attack on scientists and science by the industry was presented at the Monsanto Tribunal and People’s Assembly in The Hague in 2016. The harm caused to people’s health by corporate manipulation of research is now proven.

We need to strengthen independent research on biosafety, food safety, health safety, epidemiology and the ecology of health. The global attempt at deregulation of food safety and biosafety regulations must be stopped. Gene editing has unpredictable impacts and new products based on gene editing need to be regulated as a genetically modified organism (GMO), because the genome has been modified, and we need to assess and determine the health impact of manipulation at the genetic level.

Moreover, new attempts at gene drives to genetically manipulate organisms to drive them to extinction must be stopped to prevent crimes against nature and the creation of new unknown diseases through unintended impacts.

With the coronavirus, governments are showing they can take action to protect people’s health when they have the will. It is now time for them to take all the steps necessary to stop all activities that jeopardise our health by compromising the metabolic processes that regulate our health. The same systems also cause harm to the planet’s biodiversity and the Earth’s self-regulating capacity, leading to climate havoc.

We know that industrial agriculture and industrialised, globalised food systems based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are contributing to species extinction, climate change, and the chronic disease catastrophe. And we also know that biodiversity-based regenerative organic farming can address all three crises. It is time for governments to stop using our tax money to subsidise and promote a food system that is making the planet and people sick.

The crisis also gives people an opportunity to see how corporations have undermined our health. Corporate accountability is a health imperative and nurturing corporation-free, democratic, biodiverse, healthy food systems, and allowing a flourishing of biodiversity and knowledge systems has become a survival imperative.

The health emergency has shown that right to health is a fundamental right. Health is a common and a public good, and the government has a duty to protect it. That is why the privatisation and corporatisation of health should stop, and public health care systems should be protected and strengthened where they exist, and created where they don’t.

Rejuvenating the science of life and healthy living: Decolonising our knowledge systems and health systems

The path to a healthy planet and healthy people is clear. The economy based on limitless growth is leading to a limitless appetite to colonise the land and forests, destroying the homes of other species and indigenous people. The Amazon is being burnt for GMO crops for animal feed. The Indonesian rainforests are being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations.

Disease is being created by the unlimited demand for resources for a globalised economy based on unlimited growth. Health for all beings is based on protecting the Earth, her ecological processes, and the ecological space and ecological integrity of life on Earth, including humans.

Indigenous systems of healthcare have been criminalised by colonisation and the pharmaceutical industry. We need to shift from a reductionist, mechanistic, militaristic paradigm based on separation from and colonisation of the Earth, other species and our bodies, that have contributed to the health crisis to systems like Ayurveda, the science of life. Systems that recognise that we are part of the Earth’s living web of life, that our bodies are complex self-organised living systems, and that we have a potential to be healthy or sick depending on our environment and the food we grow and eat. Health depends on healthy food (“Annam Sarva Aushadhi – Good food is the medicine for all diseases”). A healthy gut is an ecosystem and is the basis of health. Health is harmony and balance.

While industrial globalised agriculture that is destroying the forests and the biodiversity of our farms is justified as feeding the world, 80% of the food we eat comes from small farms. Monoculture farms produce commodities, not food.

Industrial globalised agriculture is a hunger and disease-creating system. It has spread diseases related to toxins and is destroying the small farms that feed us by trapping farmers in debt and driving them to suicide. This disease-creating, unhealthy food system is subsidised by our tax money, first by providing subsidies for production and distribution, and then making people pay for the high costs of healthcare.

If we add the subsidies and health externalities of industrial, globalised food systems, we realise that neither the planet nor people can continue to bear the burden of this disease-creating, industrial, globalised food system.

Ecological agriculture free of chemicals needs to be part of the rejuvenation of public health. Unlike industrial farms, small farms take care of people’s health, especially when they are chemical-free, organic and biodiverse. We should direct all public funding to support agroecological farms and local economies as part of a health system.

Through biodiversity and organic matter in the soil, we grow more nutrition per acre, and our plants are healthier and more resistant to diseases and pests. Returning organic matter to the soil also heals the broken carbon and nitrogen cycles, which are driving climate change. Healing the planet and healing our bodies are interconnected processes.

We need biodiversity intensification and rewilding of our farms, not chemical and capital intensification. Biodiversity creates cultures and economies of care, including care for the health of the Earth and her people. All species have their right to ecological space and freedom to evolve, and all humans as part of the Earth have a right to access chemical-free biodiverse food.

Biodiverse organic systems need to become central to the public health solutions to the health emergency we are witnessing. Biodiversity of the mind must replace the monocultures of the mechanistic mind that see life’s diversity as the enemy to be exterminated. India’s greeting “Namaste” has gone global in times of the coronavirus. The significance of “Namaste” is not separation but a deeper unity that connects us all. “Namaste” means “I bow to the divine in you.” It signifies an interconnectedness in which we are part of a sacred universe where everything is permeated by the divine for the benefit of all, the exclusion of none.

This is consciousness of oneness and unity we need to cultivate in these times where a small virus has connected us across the globe through disease and panic. Let not the social isolation required in a health emergency become a permanent pattern of separation, destroying community and social cohesion. Let not the closure of local markets and farmers markets become a permanent closure to create a future of farming without farmers in the Bayer/Monsanto vision, and fake food that destroys our health while billionaires extract profits from the currency of life.

We need each other and the Earth in our rich diversity and self-organisation to create resilience in times of emergency, and to regenerate health and well-being in the post-coronavirus world.

The corona crisis creates a new opportunity to make a paradigm shift from the mechanistic, industrial age of separation, domination, greed and disease, to the age of Gaia, of a planetary civilisation based on planetary consciousness that we are one Earth family. That our health is One Health rooted in ecological interconnectedness, diversity, regeneration, and harmony.

Recommended publications

  • Who Really Feeds the World?North Atlantic Books, 2016
  • EcofeminismMaria Mies and Vandana Shiva. Zed Books Ltd., 2014

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