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Biodiversity and our health

DR. AARON BERNSTEIN will speak at the HIstoric Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes on Oct. 15 at 10 a.m.

The Prairie Woods Chapter of the Izaak Walton League has invited renowned biodiversity expert Dr. Aaron Bernstein to speak at the Historic Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein is a faculty member of the U.N. Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Bernstein will discuss how the diversity of plant and animal species on the planet directly relates to human health.

"This event will be of great interest to everyone in the community interested in human health and especially those interested in learning about the role and value that plants and animals will play in improving human health," said Sally Hausken, Izaak Walton League vice president, who is organizing the event.

"It is a great opportunity to have Dr. Bernstein here to present current information about health issues.  We planned an interactive program so that audience members can ask questions about health issues of concern."

In a telephone interview earlier this week, Dr. Bernstein noted that the general direction of discussion during his presentation would be at least partially determined by the questions he receives.

"In the big picture, I'm going to be talking about why nature matters to our health," he said.

One of the reasons why this interrelationship is of such concern right now, Bernstein added, is because "we are living in one of the most impressive periods of earth's history, in terms of loss of species."

He estimates that 50 percent of the current number of living species on the planet will be extinct within the next 90 years if something isn't done to reverse the current trend.

In all of earth's history, there have been just five of what Bernstein calls "extinction periods," where about half of the planet's species were wiped out.

"There have been five extinction periods, and we're living in the sixth," he said.

The difference is that the last such extinction period occurred 65 million years ago, before humans came into existence. Also, in all five of these past periods, the loss of species diversity took several millenia to occur -- not decades.

"The pace of species loss we're experiencing today is extraordinary," he said. "The difficulty is that one of the main reasons we are losing the diversity of life today is because of our own doing."

What many people don't realize, however, is that the diversity of species existing on the planet has a direct correlation to human health, Bernstein added.

"To do what is necessary to prevent the loss of life on earth, we must understand what's at stake for our own wellbeing," he said.

Polar bears, for instance, are an endangered species -- which is alarming for a number of reasons, said Bernstein.

"This is about more than just the loss of such majestic creatures," he said. "It's about the fact that they may hold clues to understanding and perhaps treating some diseases in humans that are presently untreatable, or poorly treated -- such as type II diabetes."

Polar bears become quite obese in the periods leading up to their hibernation -- yet they do not develop diabetes, which has been clearly linked to obesity in human beings.

"If we lose these creatures in the wild (if the only existing polar bears would be born and bred in captivity), then those secrets will be gone forever," Bernstein said. "Bears do not den (or hibernate) in captivity.

"It's not just the loss of the species, their beauty and majesty, that's relevant -- it's the loss directly to ourselves."

Another example is the honeybee, which has begun experiencing significant U.S. population declines just within the past decade.

"For the past five winters or so, there's been double the usual over-winter losses in bee colonies in the U.S.," Bernstein said. "Bees pollinate apples, almonds, watermelons and many other plants."

Bee pollination is responsible for developing about 10 percent of the current U.S. food supply.

"If we lose bees, we stand to pay a lot more for the foods we enjoy," Bernstein said. "But more uncertain is what will (ultimately) happen to all those plants that use bees to pollinate themselves.

"We only know the names of about one fifth of the estimated 10 million species on earth. Our ignorance gets compounded when we try to figure out the effects upon other species when we lose one, such as bees. From experience, we know that rapid declines in a single species can have dramatic reverberations, including outbreaks of infectious diseases in humans.

"Given how little we know about bees and the ecosystems they contribute to, I think it is hard to know the end result of these losses. Suffice it to say, given their importance to food production alone we would be wise to sort out why they have been dying. The causes are likely many -- pesticides, infections and possibly climate change -- but still, much more work needs to be done."

One possible cause for the phenomenon known as "colony collapse disorder" may be the mass transportation of bees between honey production facilities.

"One consideration to prevent colony collapse disorder may involve rethinking how we use bees in our agricultural systems," Bernstein said. "Most bees are now shipped in large trucks from one farm to the next. This is economically sound -- in the short term. How crowded quarters with little food (honey is often harvested before bees are trucked) across large distances may increase their vulnerability to all these stressors is an open question."

The potential extinction of these two unique creatures is just a small sampling of the potential effect of species loss on human health and wellbeing, Bernstein noted.

"We can talk about all kinds of species that have given us medicines or insights into diseases from Alzheimer's to osteoporosis to heart disease," he continued.

If these species are lost, "we may lose the secrets they hold," Bernstein said. "But far more important is that the plant and animal species of this planet are the ones that provide us with most of the fundamental goods and services that make living possible -- things like water and food.

"About 90 percent of the world's calories come from a few dozen plant species," he continued. "That's a hundred-fold fewer than we relied on (for food) a century ago. That loss of diversity is a great risk to our food supply."

When fewer varieties of plants are used for food, those critical plant varieties "become much more susceptible to plagues," Bernstein added.

"I think most people have lost sight of those vital connections between nature and human life," he said. "Too many of us operate as though we are somehow disconnected from nature -- (as though) we can pollute our oceans and lakes, degrade the land and cause 50 percent of all species on earth to go extinct without it having any effect on us whatsoever."

The truth, however, is this: "We are putting at risk vital resources that ensure our wellbeing," Bernstein said.

"My message is, we need to understand what's at stake for everyone with that loss of diversity -- and particularly, what's at stake for our health."

Tickets for the Oct. 15 presentation are $10 per person, and can be purchased by calling 218-844-7469 or stopping in at the Historic Holmes Theatre Box Office at 806 Summit Ave. in Detroit Lakes.

Those planning to attend are asked to submit information at the time of ticket purchase about what topics they would like Dr. Bernstein to discuss.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454