Biodiversity assures human health

by Rolando A. Inciong

            Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth – from the smallest organisms to the largest mammals; the different species of plants, trees, fishes; and the places where they live which we call ecosystems. Biodiversity provides us our basic needs – air, water, food, clothing materials, and the natural ingredients used in manufacturing medicines.

            The degradation of our biodiversity and ecosystems results in scarcity of food, clean water, and supply of natural ingredients for medicines; and air and water pollution. All these are threats to human health.

            Forest biodiversity offers a variety of plants and trees that provide us food, clean water and air. They provide materials for construction and many industries. Agricultural biodiversity provides us with rice and other grains, meats, fruits and vegetables. Marine biodiversity gives us all forms of fish and seafoods. Forest ecosystems provide water and purify our air; prevent soil erosion; trap carbon and other greenhouse gases; and help regulate climate. Losing such natural richness will bring harm to our health.

            According to the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, for thousands of years, humans have relied on biodiversity to cure our illnesses. In many poor countries, rural folks continue to rely on traditional medicine. India and China have incorporated traditional medicine with modern Western medicine as part of their health systems. Today, the huge pharmaceutical industry relies on biodiversity and ecosystems for natural ingredients of modern medicines.

            An example of medicine derived from nature is Ilosone, now marketed globally as Erythromycin. In 1949, the natural ingredient was discovered by a Filipino scientist, Abelardo Aguilar, who was then working for Eli Lilly Pharma Company as a researcher. Today, Erythromycin is used to prevent and treat infections, including respiratory tract infections, skin infections, diphtheria, and acute pelvic inflammatory disease, among others.

            Another example is Lagundi, which for a long time has been used as treatment for cough in the rural areas. Lagundi is now marketed in the Philippines in the form of syrup and capsule.

            Unfortunately, irresponsible human activities have degraded our biodiversity and ecosystems. These include unsustainable production and harvesting practices, illegal logging, air and water pollution that are contributing to climate change, conversion of lands and forests, irresponsible mining, illegal wildlife trading, uncontrolled use of pesticides and fertilizers, cutting of mangroves, dynamite fishing, deforestation, and many more.

            With the loss of biodiversity and degradation of our ecosystems, humanity is threatened with food shortage, poor air and water quality, and shortage of raw materials for medicine. All these are direct threats to human health.

            Today, the world faces a more urgent challenge: COVID 19. But it looks like the pandemic is a blessing in disguise as humans have slowed down in their activities, resulting in better air and water quality and a healthier biodiversity and ecosystems.