Health of the population and planet receives a £75 million boost

The Wellcome Trust announces Our Planet, Our Health: a new initiative to investigate the connections between environment and health.

The Wellcome Trust today launches a major international initiative to build understanding of the complex links between the environment and the long-term health of our species. It aims to develop a stronger evidence base that will allow individuals and governments all over the world to make informed decisions about health and the environment, which will ultimately safeguard all our futures.

There is a growing understanding that many of the changes we could make to benefit the environment could also benefit human health, while many aspects of a healthier lifestyle could in turn support a more sustainable planet. The Wellcome Trust is investing £75 million over the next five years into research to investigate these complex interactions.

"We know our relationship with the planet is jeopardising both delicate ecosystems and our long-term health, but we’re also aware of significant knowledge gaps that need to be filled so the world can decide how best to act," says Director of Strategy Clare Matterson. "Wellcome is launching this programme to improve the understanding of the links between planet and population health, and how to build the resilience of both."

Malnutrition, extreme weather events, outbreaks of infectious disease and a shortage of safe urban housing are just some of the most pressing challenges facing the world. The health of the population and the planet are inextricably linked, but there is a poor ecological fit between what we ask of the planet and its resilience. To better appreciate the impact humans are having on the ecosystems essential for life, there is a need to stimulate research excellence in this area and inspire collaborations that will really drive progress.

Wellcome is calling for proposals to establish high quality, significantly-resourced new research programmes. Involving input from many disciplines, they must have a focus on health and wellbeing and seek to advance the ability to address challenges particularly associated with the global food system or urbanisation. The Trust is also announcing ten pilot projects funded in the scoping phase that already involve the collaboration of researchers across the globe from a range of disciplines, from economic and social sciences to epidemiology and ecology.

New projects announced today as part of the pilot phase include:

  • Research with nearly 30,000 people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami will be carried out by US and Indonesian scientists. The incidence of extreme weather events is predicted to increase with climate change and this project will provide insights into the long-term effects of environmental disasters on human health including unborn babies.
  • A project in the Netherlands will investigate the potential of duckweed, the world’s smallest flowering plant and one of the fastest-growing, as a sustainable new source of protein. Duckweed has around ten times the protein content of soy, can be grown on waste water that it simultaneously cleans up and, unlike arable crops, has hardly any disease threats.
  • Populations in countries including Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, and Senegal migrate with the seasons to feed themselves and their livestock. As they move in response to climatic extremes such as rainfall, their mobile phones can be used as “human sensors”. Mapped against patterns of disease, scientists can gain new insights into the impact of movement and aggregation on human health.

Professor Lord John Krebs, former head of both the Food Standards Agency and Natural Environment Research Council, who advised Wellcome on the establishment of the Our Planet, Our Health initiative, said: "Poor diet, both too little food or nutrients and too much food, is a major risk world-wide for non-communicable disease. At the same time, agriculture and food production causes serious threats to the environment, including contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. A major new interdisciplinary research effort is needed to enhance our understanding of how to simultaneously improve dietary health, reduce environmental impacts, and bring about fundamental change."

Professor Sir Andy Haines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Chair of 2015 Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on Planetary Health, said: "Among the challenges that must be overcome in order to safeguard human health during the anthropocene epoch is lack of knowledge. There are major gaps in our understanding of the mechanisms linking health and environmental changes, and the potential to enhance resilience, protect the environment and avert serious threats to health. The call by the Wellcome Trust for research to address these gaps is an important and timely step towards stewarding humanity successfully through the 21st century within the finite environmental limits of the Earth."

Full details of and the call for research proposals are available at: Our Planet, Our Health.

The newly funded pilot phase projects and lead scientists are:

Elizabeth Frankenberg, Duke University
Nearly 30,000 people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were interviewed 10 months before it struck. The health data gathered during this survey have been combined with five annual follow-ups and a 10-year follow-up to analyse whether the stresses are associated with elevated risks of non-communicable diseases and whether some populations such as children are particularly vulnerable.

Ingrid van der Meer, Wageningen University
As the global population grows and countries become more affluent, the demand for protein increases. Animal protein sources have a relatively large impact on the environment through greenhouse gas emission and water use, so finding additional plant protein sources, such as duckweed, could provide a more environmentally friendly solution. Scientists will analyse the digestion of duckweed protein by humans and compare it to references like casein, soy and pea. The results will reveal whether the plant is suitable as a new healthy protein source for human consumption and identify the types with the highest nutritional value.

Jessica Metcalf, Princeton University
The incidence of many diseases is driven by shifting patterns of human population density, which in turn respond to environmental triggers such as extreme climatic events and seasonal cycles. Mobile phones can provide a unique window onto human movement patterns at large and fine scales. This can be matched to disease dynamics. This study will provide insights into how the movement and aggregation of people can drive patterns of disease including outbreaks.

Alan Dangour, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
This project will seek to determine the extent to which multiple environmental changes could really reduce agricultural yields and threaten food security, nutrition and health over the next 20-30 years. The research will also uncover whether particular populations will be more affected than others, such as the increasing numbers of urban dwellers especially in poor countries, or low-income households in more prosperous regions. The UK, Mexico and Ethiopia will be used as case study countries.

Christopher Golden, Harvard University
Some populations, such as the two billion people dependent on subsistence fisheries, are particularly vulnerable to the impact that global fishery declines could have on nutrition and health. The results of this project will help identify the most vulnerable populations. The project will also serve to test which marine conservation measures are most effective at helping preserve the availability of micronutrients via seafood.

Paul Wilkinson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
The building sector as a whole contributes up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 40% of all energy use. The team will focus on case studies from four contrasting low-income housing settings in the UK, Delhi, Mexico City and Cape Town. They will develop and test new methods to improve the design and maintenance of low income housing in a way that improves quality of life and wellbeing while also achieving low environmental impact.

Diego Rose, Tulane University
Are healthy diets more environmentally friendly? This is one of several questions which will be addressed by a new team researching individual diets and their effects on health and the environment in the US. The project will test the hypothesis that self-selected healthy diets produce lower greenhouse gas emissions. The effects of policy changes such as dietary guidance will also be simulated.

Marcel Dicke, Wageningen University
Insects are high in protein and micronutrients, and require relatively little land and feed. They therefore offer a potential sustainable and health-promoting food source. This project will identify and cultivate insect species with high levels of iron and zinc in the hope of sustainably combating major health problems such as anaemia. Insects can be reared on organic side-streams such as food waste, so the potential of removing a source of waste to provide insect feed will also be explored.

Leanne Unicomb, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh
Climate change is causing the salt concentration of many people’s drinking water in Bangladesh to increase, putting the population’s health at risk. Managed aquifer recharge (MAR) is a technology that may be able to solve this problem and provide a sustainable source of drinking water, but more evidence is needed to prove that it is beneficial to health and that it can remain effective after the environmental changes that are expected in the near future.

Judy Orme, Gabriel Scally, University of the West of England
Most of the nine billion people projected to be on the planet by 2050 will live in urban areas. This creates an urgent need to understand the current and future health impacts of the urban environment and climate change on city dwellers. While some impacts – such as those from heatwaves and air pollution – manifest quickly, others take much longer to show trends. This project will identify how landowners and developers can integrate health benefits into decisions that will help define the future health of cities.

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About Our Planet, Our Health

Applications for funding to establish programmes can come from anywhere in the world and applicants are encouraged to propose collaborations between researchers from a diversity of subjects, such as biomedical, social, economic, climate, agricultural, development and computer sciences, and between academics and experts from other sectors, including industry or business, government agencies and non-governmental organisations. Successful groups will be awarded up to £2 million each year for up to five years. The two key themes for research are the global food system and urbanisation.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. We support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

Our investment portfolio gives us the independence to support such transformative work as the sequencing and understanding of the human genome, research that established front-line drugs for malaria, and Wellcome Collection, our free venue for the incurably curious that explores medicine, life and art.