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Industry Focus
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Kamil Czuchrowski

Living Planet Report 2020: Bending the Curve of Biodiversity Loss

Every industry is impacted by climate change, including drug development

The whole world has entered into a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic as we worry about our family, co-workers, and close friends. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop worrying about everything else; the world is still moving, the earth is spinning, trees and animals are dying and people are getting ill from other diseases.

Every two years the World Wide Fund for Nature releases a Living Planet Report, the world’s leading, science-based analysis of humanity’s destruction of nature and its impact on wildlife populations and human health. Released in September, the 2020 report was done in partnership with the Zoological Society of London and uses the Ecological Footprint and additional measures to explore the changing state of global biodiversity.

Living planet fig, 1

In short, in just over 40 years, human over exploitation of resources was one of the main causes of a 68 percent decrease in wild vertebrate population. Why is this important and why should we care? Everything we do at home or in the lab has a direct impact on the world around us and in turn affects our health, wellbeing and the quality of science we do. The past 50 years has seen many positive changes to human health and well-being (child mortality under 5 has halved, only 10% of world population lives on less than $1.90 a day, life expectancy is 15 years higher), and NASA just announced a 20% reduction in global nitrogen dioxide concentrations (with some places reporting nearly 60% reduction) since the start of the pandemic.

One of the strongest links between humans and nature is that human wealth depends on nature’s health – and the pharma industry is no exception. Modern medicine may be done in a laboratory, but it comes from the natural world. From aspirin to rapamycin, it is the small molecules found in the herbs, microbes, and wild substances that form the basis of our medicines today.

But it isn’t just living things that provide resources for humans. Around 71% of the surface of Earth is water, which is a key ingredient used in many pharmaceutical and life science operations. Water is extensively used as a raw material, ingredient, and solvent in the processing, formulation, and manufacture of pharmaceuticals, active ingredients, and intermediates. Freshwater demand is increasing globally at an alarming rate (55% increase projected between 2000 and 2050). Most of the water is used in agriculture (70% globally), and is constantly increasing to meet the growing demand.

The Living Planet Report also suggests that there is link between decrease in freshwater availability and the rapid declines in insect abundance, diversity and biomass. Insects are used in pharma industry on a daily basis. For example, a study published in the Biophysical Journal in 2015 revealed that an MP1 toxin from Brazilian wasps selectively kills cancer cells without harming normal cells. Many blood-feeding insects like ticks, horseflies and mosquitoes inject multiple bioactive compounds into their pray and have been used in pharma industry for many years:

  1. Ant venom in treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
  2. Spider web geometry studies to identify biochemical abnormalities caused by psychoactive drugs
  3. Silkworm extract as a potential therapeutic against Type 1 diabetes

Another component of the natural environment, most often overlooked and underestimated, plays a major role on keeping our ecosystems safe – soil. Up to 90% of all living organisms spend part or all of their lifecycle in soil. 

Levels of fauna in soil

Organisms inhabiting soil can be divided into four major classes. All the organisms are responsible for the formation of soil itself, and healthy soil filters water, keeps greenhouse gases from building up, and allows plants to grow (food included). Scientists around the globe conduct groundbreaking research on minimising human impact on the soil:

Thankfully we still have time to work on fixing the planet. The report suggests three main actions which would help bend the curve in the next few years:

  1. Transforming food production and consumption – sustainable production that will provide enough for everyone, focusing on food wastage and farming that minimizes habitat destruction, water waste, and safer chemicals;
  2. Tackle climate change – cutting greenhouse gas emission and utilizing more renewable energy;
  3. Investing in ‘nature based solutions’

The impacts of wildlife decline directly affect nutrition, food security and the livelihoods of billions of people. Each year people make our planet weaker by demanding 1.6 times more resources than Earth is capable of regenerating.

living planet fig. 2