Biodiversity for life: Careers that link conservation and health

Perhaps the ultimate way we recognise our dependence on nature is when we see biodiversity as the foundation for the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

That’s precisely the theme of this year’s International Day for Biological Diversity, which recognises the power of biodiversity to transform global food systems, secure ecosystem services and boost human health and well-being.

“By halting environmentally harmful practices, diversifying our food systems and promoting more sustainable production and consumption patterns, we can improve global health, increase food security and strengthen resilience to climate change”, said Dr Cristiana Pașca Palmer, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Being a catalyst for change

This year, the CBD is sharing eight ways individuals can be catalysts for change. These are people who conserve and sustainably use biodiversity for well-being – from reducing packaging and plastic waste to promoting indigenous biodiversity for food and nutrition.

Which got us thinking, why not be a catalyst for change in your career?

Here we’ve highlighted some creative and up-and-coming conservation careers that put biodiversity conservation at the foundation of food, water and health.

Putting a price on nature to inform decision making

An increasingly popular way of conserving the planet is through environmental economics and ecosystem assessments – literally putting a price on the value nature provides to us for free. Still in its infancy, there will be more focus on these methods looking forwards. 

Putting a value on the natural world – from crop pollination services and pest control to water purification and clean air – is an effective way to influence business leaders and politicians. And it’s become a fast-growing field within conservation.  

Jewel bugs are regarded as a crop pest, but their control has resulted in threats to some species. Credit: James Wainscoat / Unsplash.

If you have a passion for the natural world and an aptitude for numbers (or specialism in economics) this could be the field for you! 

To date we’ve published 97 Environmental Economics & Ecosystem Assessment jobs on Conservation Careers. Click here to see the latest Environmental Economics & Ecosystem Assessment jobs 

The UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is one example of an employer working in this space. Tools like ecosystem assessments and natural capital accounting are some of the ways they put “biodiversity at the heart of environment and development decision-making”.

Helping big business manage environmental impacts

While many conservationists and conservation organisations shy away from doing business with mining and oil giants and other large corporates, several forward-thinking organisations are engaging where the potential threats – and opportunities – for biodiversity conservation are greatest.

What if we could change this landscape by engaging with corporate giants? Credit: Sebastian Pichler / Unsplash.

Closely linked to environmental economics and ecosystem assessments, organisations like Fauna & Flora International (FFI) are engaging with and supporting committed businesses to manage their environmental impacts – making biodiversity and ecosystem services a key part of business planning, accounting and reporting.

FFI’s Biodiversity and Business programme now spans:

  • Mining & Energy – working with big infrastructure projects in mining, oil and gas exploration and limestone quarrying.
  • Agricultural Landscapes – influencing decisions about land conversion and supply chain management and supporting sustainable intensification of food production.
  • Conservation Finance & Enterprise – working with small- and medium-sized enterprises to secure finance, improve market access and generate income that for local livelihoods.

“The aim is to embed biodiversity within decision-making, risk management and financial planning – in acquisitions, divestment and mergers, terminology which might be terrifying to conservationists because we don’t understand it”, said Pippa Howard, Director of FFI’s Biodiversity & Business programme.

Tomorrow’s agricultural production landscapes could look very different from today’s. Credit: Ivan Bandura / Unsplash

WWF works to create tools and approaches that take stock of natural resources to grow economies responsibly, including with The Natural Capital Project and Mozambique’s Lifeline: Nature.

“This is the first such program in Africa and one of only a few in the world. The foundation for the program will be a national-level assessment of the country’s natural resources—where are they; what benefits they provide to people, plants, and animals; and how those benefits will change under different climate scenarios.

“The results from the assessment, expected to be completed in 2019, will hopefully be used to guide both policy and private sector decisions on where and how to grow, enabling economic growth for Mozambique that also protects the natural capital necessary for a resilient and sustainable economy”, writes WWF.

There are also opportunities for conservationists to be employed directly with businesses who recognise biodiversity as fundamental to their operations.

“Together we identify plans and projects to reduce any potential negative impacts on wildlife, whilst also seeking to maximize the benefits to wildlife of our day to day activities”, says Chris Gerrard of Anglian Water.

Anglian Water manages 3,000 hectares of SSSIs – much of which are water bodies like Rutland Water (pictured).

“Naturally we have impacts on the natural environment because we are taking water from it temporarily, and are putting most of it back once it has been treated in our water recycling centres. We recognise the dependencies we have on the environment, and we want to play our part in protecting it”.

“One example of our work is within the 3,000 hectares of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in our control – much of which are water bodies. My team has resources to work in partnership with Wildlife Trusts to manage aspects of those reservoirs, so that they become great nature reserves for people to come and visit”.

Providing sustainable food for the future

Tomorrow’s (and today’s!) food production systems need to but biodiversity at their core if they are to provide food for the world’s burgeoning population.

From science and research on sustainable agricultural systems like agroforestry, to supporting local producers adopt new practices, to educating consumers about biodiversity’s place on their dinner plates, you might be surprised by the career opportunities for conservationists in this field.

Credit: Trees For The Future / Flickr.

For example, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) conducts research on the most pressing challenges of forest and landscape management around the world, aiming “to improve human well-being, protect the environment, and increase equity”. From research to capacity building to policy and practice, they have opportunities around the world.

Their research spans six thematic work areas:

  • Forests and human well-being
  • Sustainable landscapes and food
  • Equal opportunities, gender, justice and tenure
  • Climate change, energy and low-carbon development
  • Value chains, finance and investment
  • Forest management and restoration

Headquartered in Bogor, Indonesia, CIFOR works in 50 countries around the world. Credit: CIFOR.

Transforming global food markets

Certification schemes are a growing tool to ensure that food supply chains are sustainable. Paired with ecolabels, they inform consumers before they buy, ensuring that consumer choices contribute to healthy ecosystems.

For example, the Marine Stewardship Council, recognised as a top graduate employer and top UK conservation employer, use their ecolabel and fishery certification program to recognise and reward sustainable fishing practices and influence consumer’s choices. Ultimately they aim to transform the seafood market into a sustainable one.

The first fishery in India to receive MSC certification. Credit: Marine Stewardship Council / Flickr.

Integrating science and indigenous knowledge

Since shunning the vast majority of the world’s crop diversity in favour if a few mass-produced staples, we’re increasingly realising that the favourite crops that land on our plates make for non-resilient, often unproductive, and certainly unsustainable agricultural systems.

In line with the CBD’s catalyst for change tip ‘Promote local and indigenous biodiversity for food and nutrition’, opportunities exist for conservationists to integrate science and indigenous knowledge for sustainable solutions to food, water and other biodiversity-related problems.

Distinguished Professor Dr Nancy Turner works with indigenous plant experts of northwestern North America, studying traditional knowledge and resource management systems that can help inform modern sustainability. 

“I look at indigenous knowledge as a system of knowledge. Every community has its own body of knowledge that is based on in their land, their territory and the species that they know well. Certain parts of the knowledge integrate very well with western scientific knowledge: what species occur and their habitats, the timing of reproductive cycles and growth, and understanding weather patterns. I’ve called that ‘practical knowledge for sustainable living’“, explains Dr Nancy Turner. 

“You have to really enjoy working with people and be willing to listen and be patient. At the same time, you need to have a depth of knowledge about the species that you’re working with”, adds Nancy.

Combating plastic pollution

With roughly 8 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year and 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic and counting present in the oceans, time is up to change consumer behaviour.

Awareness of ocean plastic pollution has swept across the globe thanks to powerful environmental campaigns, and the CBD recommends reducing plastic waste as one way to be a catalyst for change.

If campaigning isn’t for you, you might prefer working directly with companies to help them reduce their plastic waste like Fauna & Flora International does, or documenting plastic pollution and its impact on wildlife like Conservation Careers Blogger Stella Diamant onboard one of The Ocean Cleanup’s ‘Mega Expedition’ vessels.

Finding your path to a biodiversity career

There are countless academic pathways into careers that put biodiversity at the forefront of food, water and health, but we’ve chosen to profile three you may not have heard of yet.

The emerging field of One Health sits at the nexus of human, animal and environmental health, recognising that they are inseparably connected. The field brings together ecologists, microbiologists, epidemiologists, physicians and veterinarians who apply concepts from population dynamics to toxicology to find solutions to complex global health challenges.

Universities including Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Cambridge University, the University of London (LSHTM), the University of Edinburgh, the University of Helsinki in Finland, Auburn University – and many more – now offer master’s programmes in this growing field.

Agroecology studies ecological processes and applies them to agricultural production systems to inform management. In short it’s farming that works with local ecosystems and biodiversity, striving to enhance rather than degrade them and drawing on traditional knowledge alongside science.

Universities like the University of Oxford and the University of Oxford and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences carry out research in this field.

Credit: Ravi Roshan / Unsplash.

Ecohydrology, the focus of this programme offered at Kiel University, Germany, studies the interactions between hydrological and ecological systems, drawing on both ecology and hydrology to inform watershed management.


Interested in the career pathways and master’s programmes mentioned here? Check out our Conservation Careers Advice and stay tuned for our upcoming 15 key conservation jobs!

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