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How we treat animals is key to human health, just look at Covid-19

- Wits University

‘Scientivist’ says planetary health must be foremost on all agendas because the ill-treatment of animals and delicate ecosystems plays havoc with human health.

Pim Martens, a Professor of Planetary Health and Sustainable Development at Maastricht University College in the Netherlands, urged researchers to 'think and do' in the face of climate change.

The self-proclaimed ‘scientivist’ who integrates his scientific knowledge with advocacy for nature and animals,  spoke at the Wits Rural Facility in Limpopo as a guest of the Wits Rural Knowledge Hub and the Office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Pro-VC) for Climate, Sustainability and Inequality at Wits University.

Martens’ presentation Planetary health: How climate change and biodiversity loss change the equation, was the second in a series coordinated by the Office of the Pro-VC, Professor Imraan Valodia.

In introducing the lecture, Valodia said universities can assist in the fight against climate change by providing evidence-based research to inform policy through evidence.

“We have drawn on the best of our academic community, both locally and internationally, to help us. We understand that climate change is not a single event, or experienced similarly by everyone. Climate change and its mitigation will be an unequal process; it will reveal humanity’s deep poverty and inequality. How do we discuss this confluence of climate change and inequality that raises awareness and leads to change?” said Valodia.

Martens is particularly concerned with climate modelling, climatic impacts on health, scenario planning, and advocacy for the protection of biodiversity and the myriad of ecosystems.

“The way we treat animals is a key factor in human health. Animals have passed on 70% of emerging pathogens in humans. Covid-19 revealed that the ill-treatment of animals and delicate ecosystems plays havoc with human health, and gravely affects the economic and social fabric of humanity,” said Martens.

Martens says that other zoonotic disease pandemics are “almost certain” but that many universities ignore climate change and planetary health by not including them in health curricula. “We cannot ignore that biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are critical for our health.”        

How to understand the complexity of planetary health                   

Martens says that maths modelling combines the many factors affecting climate change and health and effectively distils its complexity. He has looked at three zoonotic diseases in particular – Blue Tongue (which spread through Europe), the Asian tiger mosquito, and malaria.

He aimed to see spatial and temporal changes in these diseases under climate change conditions. Notably, there was a rapid spread of these diseases linked to changes in climate. Climatic changes are due to disruptions in ecosystems. “While species extinction has always occurred, the rate of this extinction is faster. Species are dying 100-1000 times more quickly.”

The loss of ecological integrity can best be explained through music, says Martens. His presentation included the music sheet for Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusiek. “If you take one note out of the symphony, you’ll still recognise it. Perhaps a few more notes taken out wouldn’t disrupt it so much. But if you keep going, you lose the entire piece. The same applies to ecosystems.”

How to discover disease-fighting organisms

Martens noted that there are many undiscovered natural resources. “Resources in coral reefs could cure cancer, for example. We know so little about the richness of our oceans, and we can’t afford to pollute them.”

He explains that while technology has progressed in the agricultural industry, commercial farmers rely on natural pollinators, but insect and bee populations are rapidly declining. Furthermore, for example, birds and field mice are necessary for pest control. These animals are also dying at an alarming rate.

A fragmented world must not be our future

In Marten’s scenario modelling, a sustainable society is possible with multifaceted interventions, including poverty reduction, quality education, animal rights, housing design and individual lifestyle choices. “I don’t think we should focus on these as different aspects, though. For example, instead of focusing on human health, we should reframe it to think about planetary health.”

Martens interviewed many indigenous and religious leaders worldwide in his quest to help reframe and change how humans treat the environment. “What is apparent is that this is a spiritual question, and we need a massive change in our perspective. It is about humans relinquishing ultimate control and dominion over others, including ecosystems. How can we stop exploiting everyone and everything around us? Let’s move from egocentrism to ecocentrism.”

Indeed, the chief climate change concerns are “selfishness, greed and apathy,” concluded Martens in his lecture.