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Building BRIDGEs | Cross-Sectoral Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation: Health, Nutrition, and Ecosystem Services

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Program, in partnership with USAID’s Biodiversity Results and Integrated Development Gains Enhanced (BRIDGE) project, held the first panel of a three-part virtual series featuring researchers and practitioners on lessons learned and entry points for action in the integration of biodiversity conservation, governance, public health, and food security.

Date & Time

May. 5, 2020
9:30am – 11:00am ET


Our collective development objectives will not be achieved if they come at the expense of biodiversity and natural resource management, said Jeff Haeni, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment at USAID. He spoke at a recent Wilson Center virtual event, co-hosted with USAID, that explored the links between conservation and public health with examples from USAID’s BRIDGE project, which aims to build the evidence base for integrating biodiversity conservation considerations into policy discussions and decision-making across sectors. “The ability of societies around the world to develop and thrive is dependent on the health of the forests, fisheries, and natural systems around them,” he said.

Fisheries and Nutrition

An estimated 3 billion people depend on fish for a substantial part of their food security, said Barbara Best, former Senior Coastal Resource Management and Policy Specialist at USAID. “Fishing is one of the largest sources of nutritious food, and the largest extractive use of biodiversity,” said Best. The most widely traded food worldwide, fish is a major source of high-quality protein and essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D. It’s also an important source of omega 3 fatty acid, which is essential for early brain development in children.

Yet 10 percent of the global population is at risk for malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies due to the decline and poor management of wild fisheries, according to one study. Countries across West Africa are particularly vulnerable due to their high reliance on fisheries for nutrition and livelihoods. “As fish stocks decline, largely due to poor management, for millions of people living in the tropics, fish adds the missing micronutrients and proteins to what otherwise would be an unbalanced diet,” said Best.

Misconceptions About Wild Caught Fisheries

Wild caught fisheries have often been overlooked in international dialogues and international food security programs, said Best. To learn why, she and colleagues interviewed people at USAID to understand why fisheries weren’t on their radars. Many didn’t think about wild caught fisheries at all, nor did they realize how important they could be. Others knew that fish catches were declining, but thought that nothing could be done to reverse the trend. Therefore, they assumed that fish farming was the only solution. Despite common misconceptions, we can reverse fish decline and improve the natural productivity of wild fisheries, allowing them to rebound, said Best.

To improve resiliency, she recommended engaging fishers in the management process through participatory co-management systems, securing tenure and access for small-scale fishers to fishing grounds, and reducing subsidies that can drive overfishing. Wild-caught fisheries and ecosystem services need to be better integrated into food systems and development programs. As Best put it, fishing and wild-caught fisheries are “just too big to ignore” for achieving global food security goals.

The Power of Forest Foods

Deforestation is often justified in terms of food security, usually for producing staple crops, said Amy Ickowitz, Team Leader of Sustainable Landscapes & Livelihoods at the Center for International Forestry Research. But forests themselves are important for food security, according to preliminary findings from her research in Zambia. Wild foods collected from nearby forests accounted for 68 percent of women’s weekly fruit consumption, and over 25 percent of recommended daily intake of fruits per year, according to preliminary findings. The researchers weren’t expecting forest foods to make such a big nutritional contribution, said Ickowitz. Without quantifying forest foods’ contribution to food security, it’s easy to dismiss such foods and not give them the attention they deserve, she said.

When forests are cleared to grow more maize and other staple crops, people lose access to the micronutrients found in fruits and wild foods. Although further research is needed, the evidence in studies like this helps organizations understand the need for cross-sector collaboration between forestry, food security, agricultural, conservation, and development programs.

Global Relationships

Building the evidence base on the local and regional levels can inform global efforts. By generalizing the smaller-scale relationships between nature and human health, progress can be made globally, said Taylor Ricketts, Gund Professor and Director of the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont. Ricketts demonstrated this by taking a look at a variety of health outcomes and how they relate to surrounding ecosystems. One study explored how watershed conditions affect downstream diarrheal disease among children in Mozambique. Deforestation undermines the development efforts of WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) programs, as risks are increased by greater human activity and less tree cover upstream. The reforestation of watersheds should be a significant complement to more traditional policy interventions, such as WASH.

Another project Ricketts highlighted showed how proximity to forests affects diet diversity in children. Households closer to forests had 16 percent more diverse diets than those further away, demonstrating the interconnectedness of nutrition, health, and forest conservation. It is clear that forests and conservation affect children’s health, with rural and poor households most directly reliant on nature, said Ricketts. “Again and again, we find that rural and poor households depend more directly on nature than their converse,” said Ricketts. “So there’s an enormous equity issue here in terms of conserving nature for human health.” As such, “nature investments can be public health investments.”

While investing in forests should not replace traditional approaches to improving human health worldwide, said Ricketts, it’s a great complement that shows the synergy among the conservation, health, and development sectors—which have often operated in separate silos. Projects that improve health and forests could advance not only poverty goals, but also health and nature goals all at once, he said. The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are guiding global investments all over the world of development. “But it’s absolutely clear that we won’t succeed unless we find synergies in them,” said Ricketts, “and advance many of them at once.”

Written by Eliana Guterman, edited by Sandra Yin

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Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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