Why biodiversity is important for children

Five things you need to know

Cristina Colon
Illustration of children interacting with the natural world
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF
12 November 2020
6 minute read

This year marks the end of the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity, but what is biodiversity and why is it so significant? As we prepare for a new global framework on biodiversity in 2021, here are five things you need to know about biodiversity and its importance for children.
 

1. What is biodiversity?

The term means biological diversity and refers to all the variety of life – whether that’s plants, animals, fungi or micro-organisms – as well as to the eco-systems they form and the habitats in which they live.

Biological diversity comprises three levels: Species diversity:  the variety of different species; Genetic diversity: the variety of genes contained in plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms; and ecosystem diversity: all the different habitats that exist.

Curious child looks at bugs in the ground
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

2. Why is biodiversity important?

Biodiversity is essential for human health and well-being, economic prosperity, food safety and security, and other areas critical to all humans and all human societies.

Organisms, ecosystems and ecological processes supply us with oxygen and clean water, they help cycle carbon and fix nutrients, they enable plants to grow, they keep pests and diseases in check, and they help protect against flooding and to regulate the climate.

Illustration of teen picking mangos from tree pollinated by bees
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

3. What do we mean by biodiversity loss?

Biodiversity is declining faster than it has at any other time in human history. People represent just 0.01 per cent of all living creatures, but have still caused the loss of 83 per cent of all wild mammals and half of plants in just the last 100 years. How we grow food, produce energy, dispose of waste and consume resources is destroying nature’s delicate balance that all species — including ours — depend on for survival. Plus, scientists agree that climate change is happening much too fast for species to adapt and survive.

Endangered species
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

4. How does biodiversity impact on children?

No one is immune to the adverse impacts of biodiversity loss and degraded ecosystems. Children, in particular, are affected because their bodies are still developing and their behaviour – like playing on the ground or eating dirt – can expose them to more harmful chemicals and organisms.

Child playing outside in a polluted environment
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Food

Biodiversity is essential for healthy child nutrition and provides plant, animal and microbial genetic resources necessary for food production and diversified, balanced diets. Biodiversity provides vital ecosystem functions such as soil fertilization, nutrient recycling, pest and disease regulation, erosion control and crop and tree pollination.

Water

Biodiversity supports ecosystems to provide and purify water. Every two minutes a child dies from a water-borne disease. But through the continuous recycling of water, biodiversity maintains ecosystem services needed to sustain drinking water supplies. Ecosystems also play a significant role in purifying water.

Children washing and playing in clean water
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Resilience

Biodiversity is essential to increase the resilience of communities and reduce their vulnerability in the face of shocks such as climate change and natural disasters. Biodiversity loss destabilizes ecosystems that can regulate the climate and mitigation of floods. This leads to weakening of community resilience, and their ability to adapt and protect the health and safety of their children.

Child and animals caught in a wildfire
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Disease

Biodiversity loss can increase the incidence and distribution of certain infectious diseases which are lethal for children. Diseases that spread from animals to humans are a serious threat: studies show that 75 per cent of all emerging diseases come from wildlife, including COVID-19. Deforestation drives wild animals out of their natural habitats and closer to humans and is linked to 31 per cent of outbreaks such as Ebola, and the Zika and Nipah viruses. And climate change has altered and accelerated the transmission patterns of infectious diseases while contributing to human displacement.

Children playing football while wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Medicines

Biodiversity is an important and irreplaceable source for medicines and advances in understanding disease, thereby supporting child health. Plants, fungi, microbes and animals are the sources of unique and innovative molecules that form the basis for new medicines. Biodiversity also provides models with which to study health and disease, contributing to improvements in treatment and survival rates.

Nature-based solutions

Around 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are harvested for medicine, and as many as half of modern drugs that have been developed from natural products are threatened by biodiversity loss. One example is the South American cinchona tree, the source of the malaria drug quinine children under five  accounted for 67 per cent of malaria deaths in 2018.

Nature

Experiencing biodiversity positively influences physical and mental health and well-being.  Increasingly, research on childhood exposure to nature suggests that early positive experiences may contribute to higher achievement in school, better physical fitness and lower rates of obesity, as well as reduced stress and greater self-confidence.

Curious child looks at bugs on a leaf
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

5. What can we do to conserve biodiversity?

Understanding and awareness

Helping people to understand what biodiversity loss means for them, and particularly for the health of their children, can be a very effective incentive for the positive behavioural change required to ensure more sustainable lifestyles and choices in energy, food and water consumption, which will in turn ease threats to biodiversity.

Child hugs the only Cinchona tree left
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Tools and research on links to human health

In order to provide more evidence on the links with biodiversity and health we should develop tools and methodologies to support the intersection of biodiversity and human health; study more closely environmentally-sensitive diseases in order to support more effective preventive public health strategies; and develop qualitative and quantitative research to explore the root causes of disease emergence and address how anthropogenic drivers of changes in biodiversity affect the transmission of human disease.

Teen climate activist looks into the future
Cynthia Alonso for UNICEF

Restoring ecosystems while building back better

Habitat protection and restoration are highly beneficial public goods for which government investment is more than justified. According to the OECD, restoring 46 per cent of the world’s degraded forests could provide up to US$30 in benefits for every dollar spent, boosting local employment and increasing community awareness of biodiversity’s importance.

Green new deals or stimulus packages provide an opportunity to acknowledge the close connections between people, nature and climate, and translate it into action to reduce nature-related risks. This would lead to increasing protected areas of the planet, restoration of natural habitats, closure of illegal wildlife markets, changing consumption patterns to reduce the strain on nature, and setting targets to halve the impact of everything that the world produces and consumes. In turn, this would help to directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase conservation of carbon sinks which also addresses climate change.