"We live in an era of increasing collective knowledge and, hopefully, collective wisdom. "One health" and ecosystem health can help us organize our thoughts and actions to move the world toward rapid recovery of biodiversity and economic viability. It's our choice and it's everyone's business."
—DR. VAL R. BEASLEY, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE, AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ENVIROVET PROGRAM IN WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEM HEALTH
He has served in the college's Department of Veterinary Biosciences and the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology, where he is a professor and executive director of the Envirovet Program in Wildlife and Ecosystem Health. Dr. Beasley's major research thrust currently is causes of amphibian declines, including investigations of interactions among ecosystem integrity, water quality, infectious disease incidence, and contaminants, including endocrine disruptors, pesticides, and metals.
How serious are current species declines and disappearances?
A 2008 report by World Wildlife Fund from a survey of more than 1,300 vertebrates found unprecedented losses—since 1970, approximately 30 percent of individual vertebrates have disappeared. Habitat loss and degradation, crowding, inbreeding, toxic chemicals, overharvest, exotic invasive species, climate change, and infectious diseases culminate in species declines, extinctions, and reduced ecologic services for society. Now that's an opportunity for veterinary medicine. We can work with others to identify and counteract stressors that eliminated wild animals, we can help reconfigure habitats that make sense from a health perspective, and we can support range expansions.
Share your thoughts on the future of animal production.
There's a big concern of losing the meat production industry to producers in the developing world. There is a need for options that solve multiple problems at once. One opportunity is raising wildlife at low enough densities that disease risks are few and natural selection is largely intact. In some regions, cropping reasonable numbers of the animals can be economically viable while allowing for recovery of biodiversity. Also, pastures can be grazed by livestock in ways that reduce needs for herbicides and replanting, while improving soil quality, pasture biodiversity, and livestock health and productivity. Assuming that people are going to continue to eat pork, poultry, and eggs, we need a diversified agricultural landscape, configured to produce feed grains where we grow animals, so wastes are fertilizers rather than pollutants. If we have smaller, more biosecure, better managed animal production systems, the risks of infectious diseases will decline. If we put these next-generation animal facilities higher in the watershed, surrounded by the crop fields, we can have reduced risks of disease transmission among wildlife and production animals. If problems decline and we educate the public regarding economic, health, and ecological gains, food animal producers should have fewer objections to new facilities.
How do you view the effects of environmental contaminants on animals and people?
We're all in this world together. If it's contaminated for one of us, it's contaminated for others. It's not just pesticides and heavy metals. It's also industrial chemicals, salts, fuels, plasticizers, excreted pharmaceuticals, free nutrients, and natural toxins produced by organisms that use those nutrients. We are learning how to limit exposures to protect the farm and the home. When we make those places safe for those animals, it's safer for us, too. Knowing that we have protected wild species is more of a challenge, especially when they are small species like insect pollinators or when they are rare or secretive. Poisoning, which may cause subtle impairment of essential behaviors or endocrine disruption that impacts metabolism or reproduction, is likely to have important impacts on the highly competitive lives of wildlife, where peak performance is essential for survival and reproduction.
How can people help restore the environment and biodiversity? What are some of the benefits?
To conserve genetic diversity, wild animals need clean, interconnected habitats. We need to choose our chemicals more carefully and use them more wisely to avoid harm to ecosystems, plants, and animals. We need to conserve habitats for soil and aquatic organisms that compete with pathogens for nutrients, for fungi that poison pathogens with antibiotics, for dung beetles that remove feces and parasite ova from the surface, for micropredators that consume microbial and macroscopic parasites as well as vectors, and for larger predators that remove the sick from wildlife populations.
There is also a need to address human psychologic well-being. A recent book about nature deficit disorder says that, for little kids to be emotionally healthy and intellectually stimulated, they need to interact with biodiversity. When it comes to multisensory stimulation, nothing works like a truly wild place. Give them that—in addition to clean food and exercise, good parenting, and education—and they can come out with rich intellectual curiosity and a love of life. Increasingly, veterinarians are directly and indirectly involved in conserving biodiversity. Our role in preventing nature deficit relates to the spirit, optimism, and effectiveness of future generations.
Veterinary and human medicine, agriculture, wildlife biology, business leaders, regional planners, and political leaders can collaborate to assume area wide responsibility for health of people, animals, and ecosystems of their given regions. Fortunately, we can partner with other groups that are working in a one-health paradigm.
The International Association for Ecology and Health, which hosts the International EcoHealth Forum, is a great organization that deals with the interface of public health, animal health, and ecosystem health.
Another organization is the International Society for Animal Hygiene. This group hosts an international meeting focused on clean milk, meat, and eggs; the humane treatment of animals in production systems; and the farm ecosystem, including areas beyond the edge of production sites.
A third group in the United States is the National Council for Science and the Environment, which hosts an annual conference to share discoveries and to deliver knowledge and recommendations to decision makers.
We live in an era of increasing collective knowledge and, hopefully, collective wisdom. "One health" and ecosystem health can help us organize our thoughts and actions to move the world toward rapid recovery of biodiversity and economic viability. It's our choice, and it's everyone's business.