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Terry E.  Cohen headshot

The Strong Scientific Link Between Forests and Human Health

A new report from WWF gives the public, private and nonprofit sectors a ground-to-aerial view of the scientific links between forests and human health.
By Terry E. Cohen

Common sense and scientific fact: Human beings benefit from regular contact with nature, including forests. Nonprofits such as the Fresh Air Fund, founded in 1877, have promoted the concept for decades. Studies document the individual mental and physical health improvements to be gained from simple walks in a natural environment.

On a global scale, more consumers understand what deforestation of the Amazon for cattle and other commodity production means for climate change, which translates to negative impacts for human health. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaces increased risk of zoonotic diseases, the transfer of illness-inducing pathogens from animals to humans. These are lessons that should have been more deeply embraced from past waves of avian influenza, swine flu, HIV and Ebola, among others.

These seemingly distinct issues — the benefits of a walk in the woods and the prevention of worldwide death — have a common denominator: forests.

A new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called The Vitality of Forests gives the public, private and nonprofit sectors a ground-to-aerial view of the scientific links between forests and human health. WWF advances what it calls a “holistic framework” that pulls together all the interconnected systems that link humans and forests.

The publication is a digestible 55 pages that illustrate how forests have an impact on water and air quality for the better and provide a variety of benefits, from food to much-needed protection from natural disasters. Forests and vegetation also defend against excessive heat and drought; improve biodiversity that inhibits the spread of zoonotic diseases, and much more, including making that walk in the woods possible.

In addition to its sobering statistics — the planet has lost 40 percent of its forests, including the conversion of 17 percent of the Amazon in just 50 years — the report advocates a four-part systems approach to promoting forest and human health: protect and prevent forest conversion; improve forest and land use management; restore forests through diversified approaches; and create urban forests.

This opens a wide door for any business to assess where it can modify its operations beneficially and cost-effectively, whether to examine its supply chain for forest-adverse vendors and practices, to site its next facility on land already in commercial use, or to focus on carbon emission reduction, to name a few.

Further, WWF illustrates the four layers of the earth’s population geographically relative to forests: directly dependent on forests, rural, suburban and urban. For companies already deep into target market modeling, it’s not a stretch to consider folding forest and human health support into its delivery systems, workforce retention and marketing.

The report also does a good job of breaking down the different sectors affecting human beings such as nutrition, noncommunicable diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular, cancer, etc.), infectious diseases (including zoonotic illness), and physical accessibility. To its credit, the WWF also identified knowledge gaps, areas requiring more study so reliable actions can be taken. It also candidly points out negative aspects of human contact with nature to be considered, such as Lyme disease and dangerous animal confrontations.

So what does a corporate commitment to the forest-human health connection look like? Based on the WWF’s report, the possibilities are extensive. Freeing a supply chain of harmful sources isn’t easy, but Groupe Danone gains recognition by various ranking organizations for its efforts. The company reports on its sourcing progress for palm oil, soy and pulp products, thus adding transparency to the toolbox.

Supply chains are just one target. Some companies aim for investment in reforestation technology. Others seek out LEED certification for building design. Rooftop forests and gardens are feasible and growing in number.

Sponsorships support access to the wild for the disabled. For corporations seeking to reduce poverty and household air pollution as well as combat degradation of forests and vegetation, funding and technical support for clean cooking initiatives in developing nations creates a multiple win.

And, come on, who wouldn’t like a fruit orchard on their company’s campus?

The WWF report is thought-stimulating. It’s an ethically-sourced coffee for business and industry brains.

In one place, it’s good to see both the forest and the trees.

Image credit: Geran de Klerk via Unsplash

Terry E.  Cohen headshot

Terry is a U.S.-based writer and editor. With an extensive background in business, government and media, she writes about economic equity for women, public policy, education and efforts to improve environmental impacts.

Read more stories by Terry E. Cohen