Does biodiversity make your skin itch?

When we say that biodiversity is important, and that contact with nature is good for our mental and physical health, we are often expressing an intuitive sense that ‘it just must be’.

A recently published study provides further evidence of the importance of biodiversity and the unexpected impacts of biodiversity loss.  Researchers in Finland have found that the global trend of increased allergies and chronic inflammatory diseases amongst urban populations may be linked to living in biodiversity-poor places.Image: WTPL

According to the paper, reduced contact with nature and biodiversity has a negative impact on “the human commensal microbiota and its immunomodulatory capacity”. Or more straightforwardly, the microbiotic biodiversity living on ones skin, which affects disposition to allergies and to autoimmune diseases, is poorer in areas of low biodiversity, and where people don’t come in sufficient contact with nature.

As urban areas lose their green spaces and the wildlife they support, and as our surroundings become more obsessively hygienic, we are reducing our chances – and more particularly the chances of our children – to develop immunity to a range of chronic conditions.

It’s really just a more sophisticated version of granny’s “a bit of dirt never harmed anyone”, or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but the findings of the Finnish researchers has significant implications for the design of our urban areas and its impact on public health. We are living in an increasingly urban world in which an greater proportion of the population is likely to suffer from chronic illness. Aside for any human cost, there is a serious financial cost on health services and to the economy more widely. 

Research shows trees and green space can be important for improving and maintaining air quality and reducing the risk of chronic lung conditions; evidence supports contact with nature as a way of helping with mental health; green spaces near to where we live encourage activity and improve public health; and now we know the environment in which we live and our contact with nature is important in developing our immunity…. but mostly we just know our granny was right.

This is just one more bit of evidence, if more were needed, of the importance of biodiversity where we live. Of course conserving rainforest, tigers, rhino, the Alaskan wilderness and our own natural habitats and iconic species is critically important, but we can fixate on the wild and remote and spectacular, at a cost to the ordinary and the familiar in the places where we live. Biodiversity isn’t just something ‘out there’, it should be something here. It doesn’t have to be rare or threatened or specialist or spectacular to be important.

We need to plan green space and biodiversity back into urban areas. We need to make it accessible, not just as a place to visit but as spaces we live in and move through in the course of our everyday lives; we need to celebrate the ordinary and the familiar as well as the rare and strange. And let some of it at least, be wild and unruly.  We need street trees, parks, playing fields and lawns, but we also need new meadows, ponds and woods in and around villages towns and cities.

Mike Townsend, Communications and Evidence Adviser

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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7 Responses to Does biodiversity make your skin itch?

  1. Thanks for answering Austin. Am glad you’re happy with IKEA’s response even though they continue to fell 250-600 year old trees. £1,300,000 from IKEA to the Woodland Trust would be a lot of money to turn down if you didn’t feel happy with their response.

  2. Regarding biodiversity loss in old growth forests, how does the Woodland Trust feel about it’s continuing partnership with IKEA who are logging ancients woodland in Russia? http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/may/29/ikea-ancient-tree-logging

    • Austin Brady says:

      Thanks for your question, and welcome to the blog…
      We are aware of the Guardian article of 29th May relating to IKEA’s sourcing of wood from forests in Karelia, Russia and have investigated this issue direct with IKEA. We are happy with their response, that the company takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and does take reasonable steps with regards to developing its forestry policy and sourcing Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood. We are confident that IKEA will continue to strive to meet its targets for sourcing FSC certified timber and as part of our partnership with the company we will continue to monitor its approach to sustainability.

      The Forestry Stewardship Council provides a framework for independent third part accreditation systems for sustainable forest management; you can find out more about them here http://www.fsc.org/about-us.1.htm. They have published information about the investigation of complaints about the forestry activities of Swedwood in Russia at http://www.fsc.org/swedwood-russia.323.htm.

      Further information on IKEA’s approach to their sustainable use of wood is available at http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_GB/about_ikea/people_and_planet/energy-and-resource.html# just click on the ‘read more’ tab under ‘wood’.

  3. Pingback: Natural stress relief | Woodland Matters

  4. Hey very interesting blog!

  5. Juliet Day says:

    There’s slightly different angle on this taken up by the Royal College of Pathologists revolving around plant selection. Their garden for Chelsea this year is Urban Greening: not to be sneezed at. The Cambridge University Botanic Garden has been growing on both low-allergen and high-allergen plants for it:
    http://www.botanic.cam.ac.uk/Botanic/NewsItem.aspx?p=27&ix=90&pid=2722&prcid=4&ppid=2722

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