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Balancing human and natural worlds
  1. Josh Loeb

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What is Planet Earth for?

If that sounds like the most infuriatingly philosophical question imaginable, perhaps the following may serve to add clarity: is the planet here for the sole convenience of our species, or do we have a duty to leave sufficient space for other species – even if that means doing things that could potentially harm our own kith and kin?

If it’s the latter, how, then, can we strike the right balance between advancing our human and societal priorities – for example, producing enough food and building enough homes for an expanding human population – and preserving or restoring homes for wildlife (in other words, maximising biodiversity)?

Far from being abstract, questions like these are now core to pragmatic policymaking.

Clashes between ‘human’ and ‘natural’ agendas are evident everywhere

While some might claim that there is no conflict between ‘human’ and ‘natural’ agendas, clashes are in fact evident everywhere, from debates about infrastructure projects, such as HS2, to arguments about culling wildlife as part of livestock disease eradication programmes (put simply, is it immoral to exterminate wildlife purely on the basis of human imperatives, in this case the imperative of producing animal-based food products?).

Thoughtful environmentalists disagree between themselves about where precisely the balance should lie but, broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the issue of land use in rural areas. One school favours ‘land sharing’, which envisages extensive or ‘free-range’ food production, with more of a blurred boundary between agricultural land and natural habitats; the other favours ‘land sparing’, which advocates separateness through intensive production on a smaller footprint so as to leave more space for wildlife.

Campaign group Vet Sustain has become a useful forum for such conversations, and debates like these are increasingly a mainstay of conferences too.

As we report in this issue on pp 376–377, two speakers at the World One Health Congress addressed the issue of how best to balance human considerations with the desire to boost biodiversity with reference to the vexed issue of ‘rewilding’ – an umbrella term that, in the popular imagination, has become synonymous with schemes to reintroduce into Great Britain boar, beavers and potentially even lynx and wolves.

In separate talks, veterinary epidemiologist Rowland Kao and APHA scientist Flavie Vial were both careful to make clear that they were not expressing a view on reintroductions per se; however, both highlighted potential adverse public and livestock health consequences that could flow from species reintroduction schemes.

Essentially, Kao pointed out that the more wildlife there is, the more opportunity there may be for wild animals to come into contact with, and transmit disease to, livestock. He even hinted at how, while schemes to mitigate the effects of climate change were ‘very, very important’, these, too, could (counterintuitively perhaps) have some potentially negative consequences. For example, might wetlands created to help mitigate flood risks inadvertently provide new homes for biting insects that are disease vectors?

Vial, meanwhile, called for more interdisciplinary conversations ‘to understand what it is we are trying to do’ on rural policy in the UK.

With the Agriculture Bill making its way through parliament (see p 378) and opportunities to reimagine the British countryside after Brexit, such calls for interdisciplinary dialogue about the difficult trade offs between agricultural and environmental priorities are increasingly fitting.

One Health is about transdisciplinary collaboration to create solutions to global challenges. Thus far, one big issue – antimicrobial resistance – has perhaps dominated the One Health agenda. While that issue is undeniably important, One Health should rightly be seen as encompassing much else besides – from canine passive smoking to bovine TB, from Covid-19 on mink fur farms to the profound issue of who or what rural land is there for.

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