Blog 5: Human and planetary health are connected

In blog 5 of our blog series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Paul Polman, ex CEO of Unilever and Co-founder and Chair of IMAGINE (a benefit corporation and foundation accelerating business leadership to achieve the Global Goals) reminds us that in this time of COVID-19 the interests of people and planet have never been more strongly aligned. Value human and natural capital equally he implores. He calls on businesses to be active partners of governments, NGOs and others to tackle COVID-19 with some recommendations of what they should do. He also reminds us that this time of crisis is also an opportunity to reset food systems so that they can better work for -and not against- the SDGs.

-- Lawrence Haddad

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the limits of unchecked globalisation, as governments around the world seek to contain its devastating impacts.

The focus right now has to be on slowing contagion, protecting those most at risk, developing a vaccine and activating huge fiscal and monetary stimulus packages to support livelihoods. But I hope that when we come through this crisis, we will reflect more on how human and planetary health are connected.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, many researchers have highlighted how the destruction of our biodiversity and natural capital have in fact perpetuated many new pathogens. Deforestation and urbanisation, for example – coupled with a population explosion – has led to humans and animals coming into ever closer contact, resulting in the transmission of more diseases and viruses from wildlife to humans. COVID-19 is clearly a wake-up call that we must start living within our planetary boundaries. And I’m convinced we can do so, provided we equally value natural and human capital.



This is a crucial ‘decade of action’ that requires business to step-up to help decarbonise the global economy and deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. We cannot do this without integrating stewardship of the earth’s life support services – oceans, biodiversity and climate – with a new way of doing business. Valued at $125 trillion a year our natural capital and biodiversity are vital components of the wealth of nations. And it’s estimated that so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ can provide up to a third of the cost-effective GHG emission reductions needed by 2030, making them indispensable to securing the climate transition the world needs. Indeed, without action to advance this agenda we will not limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5 °C.

Fortunately, the evidence base for determined action is compelling. A recent report by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that the ways we produce and consume food and use land costs $12 trillion a year in damage to our environment, health and development. And if we do nothing, this will increase to more than $16 trillion each year by 2050.



On the other hand, the FOLU report shows it is possible to bring climate change under control, protect nature, ensure more healthy diets for all, improve food security, strengthen rural economies and unlock $4.5 trillion in new business opportunities each year by 2030.

So, what can businesses do in response? The first step is to align their strategies with the Sustainable Development Goals – the world’s greatest business plan. Second, they should adopt science-based targets to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. And third, they must embrace ‘nature-based solutions’ to help preserve our natural capital and biodiversity. Taken together, these actions can deliver truly meaningful change.

At this moment, it’s the duty of business to be an active partner of governments, NGOs and others to help tackle COVID-19. But we must not lose sight of the fact that we must rapidly transition to a more sustainable and equitable model of growth if we are to avoid future pandemics.

The interests of our people and planet have never been more strongly aligned. Let’s work together to restore this connectivity, so we can build a healthy and prosperous world for all.


You may also be interested in this longer article from the author: This is a wake-up call. We must live within our planetary boundaries to avoid future pandemics 


About the author

Paulus Gerardus Josephus Maria Polman KBE is a Dutch businessman. He is a former Procter & Gamble president for Western Europe. In 2006 Polman joined Nestlé as chief financial officer and became vice president for the Americas in February 2008. From 2009 to 2019, he was the chief executive officer (CEO) of the British-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever. In 2019, he created a new organization called Imagine, along with co-founders Valerie Keller and Jeff Seabright, to help businesses "eradicate poverty and inequality and stem runaway climate change." (Source



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