Planetary Health: a holistic perspective on health

Our health largely depends on the health of all the ecosystems we rely on. This realization, which is becoming increasingly urgent in light of the current environmental crisis, calls for research with a broad perspective. Under the umbrella of the thematic community of planetary health, various strong Utrecht research themes come together to address global issues in sustainable health. We spoke with Professor Roel Vermeulen and Professor George Kowalchuk, chair and vice-chair of the new community. Vermeulen leads the Utrecht research into Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome analysis, while Kowalchuk directs the research on ecology and biodiversity.

Professor Roel Vermeulen

The new community combines the expertise of three robust research communities from the Utrecht Life Sciences: the mutual relationship between human and animal health (One Health), the impact of environmental factors on human health (Exposome), and the development of sustainable and healthy food systems for the future (Future Food). The community embraces a holistic framework that brings all these areas together in addressing complex issues in the realm of planetary health.

Vermeulen and Kowalchuk recognize the value of sharing insights and strengthening collaborations across disciplines. "In Utrecht, we are very successful in many research areas. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for a theme like planetary health," says Vermeulen. "From an ecological perspective, we recognize that not humans, but the whole system is central. Human-inclusive nature, as opposed to the more common nature-inclusive perspective," Kowalchuk adds.

Planetary Health

Within the framework of planetary health, humans are seen as an integral part of a much larger system, a view essential given the current environmental challenges. "Ecologists study how biodiversity dynamics affect various aspects of ecosystem function and how these aspects are linked to each other. A system approach that fits well with planetary health," says Kowalchuk. "The systems we rely on for our health, such as climate, food and water systems, and biodiversity, are increasingly out of balance. This imbalance can, in the long run, have serious consequences for human health and lead to increased health inequalities."

If we don't get the system properly balanced, it can ultimately have consequences for human health

From theory to practice

While a lot of knowledge exists about the limits of our planet and it's clear that we are significantly exceeding these boundaries, a major question remains: how can we initiate the required transition to stay within these limits? Vermeulen is convinced that Utrecht is excellently positioned to take on this challenge, thanks to the combination of an academic medical center and a broad university with top-tier research in climate and life sciences. "The energy transition, the mobility transition, the protein transition. That's where we can genuinely make a difference. The community brings a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective to these transitions. "And that's necessary because system changes are very difficult. They are full of trade-offs and cannot be addressed with point solutions," says Vermeulen. Kowalchuk emphasizes the importance of a broad story and sharp choices: "On sustainability themes, grand statements are often made. From a scientific perspective, we challenge that and ask: what are we going to do concretely?". Vermeulen and Kowalchuk agree that short lines of communication, a small team with a broad base, and a good story can make the community effective.

In this way, we contribute to a more sustainable and healthy living environment for our generation and the generations after us

Conflicting interests

Recently, there was a discussion about healthy eating guidelines. It was suggested that for some target groups, it might be a good idea to eat 'a bit more fish'. However, from a planetary health perspective, this is not a good idea. "This discussion illustrates that we need to weigh up what is healthy for humans in the short term versus what is healthy for both humans and the planet in the long term, and that weighing framework is often lacking," says Vermeulen. "And that's what we need to work on collectively."

Forming the community

Professor George Kowalchuk

“The current dynamics in the academic field make the formation of a consolidated community in Utrecht both possible and necessary” states Vermeulen. He points to the One Health community, which, traditionally focused on infectious diseases, is now choosing a broader perspective that overlaps with that of planetary health. “The starting point for the community are the societal challenges facing both science” Kowalchuk says. According to Vermeulen, the strength of the community lies in bringing together diverse knowledge from all these systems, which can lead to unique insights and solutions. He cites the example of research into micro-nanoplastics, where Utrecht could take a unique position due to the multidisciplinary approach and the presence of relevant expertise in different areas. “There's also a lot of overlap with other themes, such as sustainability”, Kowalchuk notes.

The community in action

In the initial phase, the community will focus on developing a joint vision and mission. Vermeulen emphasizes the importance of a bottom-up approach, starting by finding focus relating to the existing national research agenda in the field of planetary health, recently published by the KNAW. He sees this as an opportunity to not only strengthen existing research themes but also to promote new, innovative, and interdisciplinary approaches. "In the short term, we want to realize some collaborations that can also serve as excellent examples to get researchers excited about collaboration," says Kowalchuk.

There will always be scientific uncertainty, but the uncertainty that we need to act is actually very small

With this foundation in place, Vermeulen and Kowalchuk believe that the Planetary Health Community can make a significant contribution to promoting a more sustainable and healthier living environment for current and future generations. By promoting collaboration, rather than competition, and deploying a wide range of expertise, the community is ready to take on the challenges of planetary health.