Aug 1, 2021

How agriculture, health and environmental sectors are transitioning to One Health

By GOHi board members, Joyce Turk, international livestock development independent consultant, and Dan Gustafson, retired deputy director-general for the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Figure 1

The links between human and agricultural systems are intricate and require a better understanding so that public health agencies are able to respond to health incidents when prevention is ineffective. However, complex relationships between different exposure pathways and health risks are being impacted by climate change, which has been shown to result in increased disease-causing agents such as chemical contaminants, pathogens and toxins in food animals, crops and seafood. Improved surveillance of these agents is needed as well as development or enhancement of early warning systems in both existing national and international public health and agricultural agencies. 

The positive and negative interactions between and among the human, agricultural and environmental sectors are complex and influenced by externalities (Figure 1). These include, but are not limited to, standards and regulations, economic policies, climate change, changes in land use pattern, pandemics, population growth and socio-cultural conflicts. Increasing awareness of, and greater attention to the complicated links between human and agricultural systems has led to greater support for adopting One Health principles and the transition to this approach by key actors in the food and agriculture system. To maintain an adequate food supply, it is necessary to balance the demands and trade-offs between environmental services and increased food production. But increasing food insecurity in lower-income countries also commands greater focus on the weak, or nonexistent, yet critical food safety standards and regulations that hamper the transition to One Health. 

Key actions needed to strengthen the transition process and ensure sustainability include inclusive cross-sectoral research, increased ecosystem surveillance of disease-causing agents and enhanced communication skills of all value chain participants. Integrated user-driven research on the impacts of climate change on food production and food safety systems requires capacity building as well as collaboration among multinational, multiagency and multidisciplinary organizations in order to enhance the strengths of all partners. 

At the international level, the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have been working together since the 1940s, but with the growing understanding of the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental health, closer and more effective collaboration within a One Health approach came to be seen as essential. This began a Tripartite initiative in 2010, highlighting the importance of sharing responsibilities and coordinating global activities to address health risks at the animal-human-ecosystems interfaces such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), influenza and rabies.  

The collaboration was formalized in 2017 as the One Health Tripartite Alliance, designed to strengthen national and regional services in animal health, human health and food safety, modernize surveillance and response systems, ensure consistency across standard-setting activities and achieve coordinated research and development.

The lessons of this experience are proving to be invaluable in addressing the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ever-threatening risk of AMR crises. AMR is a quintessential One Health issue and almost all national and global plans use a One Health platform as the foundation for their programs. It further raised awareness of the relationship between the health of people, animals and the environment, including the recognition that biodiversity loss and deforestation are linked to the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. In consequence, the United Nations Environment Program has now joined the Alliance, strengthening the linkages with the environmental dimension of One Health and expanding this partnership.