Guest blog by Julie Potyraj
If the health of a person depends on the status of their body – genetics, eating habits, age – then environmental health encompasses everything outside of the body. Improving air, soil and water quality, maintaining safe infrastructure, preventing exposure to hazardous substances, and promoting healthy homes and communities are all focuses of environmental health. The health of the environment is directly related to the health of individuals.
Environmental health considers elements like the nutritional quality of the soil for producing nourishing crops. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Healthy agricultural ecosystems are the foundation of food security.” However, rural areas in developing countries have suffered the effects of overpopulation, globalization, and climate change. The result is degraded land with low growing capacity. The quality of the soil, land, and environment affects the ability of farmers to grow food, to achieve food security, and to live healthy lives.
It is no small coincidence that the most food insecure regions on Earth also face the greatest public health risks. The World Health Organization has singled out several priority health concerns for developing countries, which include “poor water quality, availability and sanitation; vector borne diseases; poor ambient and indoor air quality; toxic substances and global environmental change.” In addition to this, one of the focal points of WHO’s Sustainable Development Goals is to reduce disease as well as improve maternal and child health. Other goals focus on improving food and water security and restoring thriving ecosystems.
All of these initiatives recognize that there is an inherent link between environments, food security, and public health. Overall, three concepts comprise food security: availability of food, access to nutritious food, and safe handling of food. Sustainable agriculture creates healthy and nutritious crops, which reduces malnutrition and hunger. This in turn promotes development, reduces poverty, and increases lifespans. Strategies like integrated crop management provide co-benefits by limiting the release of pesticides into the environment, lessening the risk of accidental pesticide ingestion in the community, and returning nutrients to the soil. Promoting sustainable agriculture methods therefore addresses priority health concerns, food, water security, and other indicators of poverty as identified by international development organizations.
Healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy ecosystem and a healthy community. Healthy soil supports plant life; together, they are to a healthy community as the immune system is to the human body. Supporting a healthy community starts with supporting its food system. In all parts of the world, the health of the people depends on the health of the environment. Especially in the agriculture-based rural areas of developing countries, environmental health starts with promoting the health of soil and plants.
Julie Potyraj is the community manager for MPH@GW, the online master of public health program offered by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. For several years, she served as a community development specialist in Zambia coordinating youth empowerment programs and reproductive health education. She is currently an MPH@GW student focusing on global health and health communications.