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The Need for a New Paradigm in Healthcare?

by Dr Robert Verkerk(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 133 - March 2007

‘Sustainability’ has become a buzz word in many fields in recent years. Agriculture, forestry, energy, water, development, finance and even communities have become victims of the term; there are many ways in which it can be interpreted. I have to say, despite the term’s wide use and abuse, I am still a believer. I think the term has great merit, but my viewpoint is conditional upon the term not being usurped and manipulated by and for the benefit of major transnational corporations. Should this happen, we are likely to see nothing more than lip service being paid to an otherwise useful and meaningful concept.

What Does ‘Sustainability’ Mean?

‘Sustainability’ has been defined in many different ways, in different contexts, referring to those approaches which provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments, both now and into the indefinite future. Sustainability relates to the continuity of social, environmental, economic and institutional aspects of human society, as well as to all aspects of the non-human environment.

The word ‘sustainability’ (Nachhaltigkeit in German) was used for the first time in 1712 by the German forester and scientist Hannss Carl von Carlowitz in his book Sylvicultura Oeconomica.

In 1995, the World Summit on Social Development defined the term as “the framework for our efforts to achieve a higher quality of life for all people”, in which “economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing components”. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development expanded this definition, identifying the “three overarching objectives of sustainable development” to be (1) eradicating poverty; (2) protecting natural resources; and (3) changing unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

On the basis of this broad definition, you could argue that ‘sustainable agriculture’, on the condition that it is genuinely sustainable, is likely to be better for us and for the environment than ‘organic agriculture’. You could achieve organic certification by ensuring that you don’t apply any synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but organic certification in itself does not force farmers to treat the soil with respect so that it remains as viable in its first year of cultivation as it would after a century or more of cultivation. It is, after all, the vital and dynamic relationship between the soil, crops and livestock that led to the founding of the Soil Association in 1946 by a group of farmers, scientists and nutritionists who observed a direct connection between farming practice and plant, animal, human and environmental health.

We are now in this peculiar situation where some of the largest agri-business producers in the world have decided to cash in on the term ‘organic’ and supermarkets stock ever-expanding ranges of certified organic products. But many of these are not produced in a sustainable manner, they merely meet the minimum criteria for organic certification.

Sustainable Healthcare

Many of us recognise the deficiencies in terms like ‘Complementary, ‘Alternative’ and ‘Integrated’ when applied to healthcare. We might know what we mean by these terms – but they are open to abuse or they may be interpreted as suggesting that such forms of healthcare or medicine are to be practised as an adjunct to allopathic medicine. This is clearly not always the case.

One of the biggest constraints of allopathic medicine is the use of new-to-nature molecules as therapeutic agents. It is no surprise that we see such a dramatic problem associated with drug side-effects, given the lack of adaptation by the human body to such molecules.  ‘Natural healthcare’ is a term that is sometimes used to refer to healthcare interventions using natural products, or to those approaches that operate harmoniously with the human body and with the environment. But it does not necessarily mean that such approaches are sustainable. If you rape a rainforest so as to harvest a rare herb that has therapeutic properties, this might be natural, but it is far from sustainable.

This brings us to the concept of ‘sustainable healthcare’ that the Alliance for Natural Health, started using around two years ago. We have defined ‘sustainable healthcare’ as follows:

A complex system of interacting approaches to the restoration, management and optimization of human health that have an ecological base, that are environmentally, economically and socially viable indefinitely, that work harmoniously both with the human body and the non-human environment, and which do not result in unfair or disproportionate impacts on any significant contributory element of the healthcare system.

Such systems clearly rule out conventional, licensed drugs as a mainstay. It also goes without saying that natural products are critically important tools in any sustainable healthcare system. As the sale of natural products for healthcare purposes continues to grow across Europe at around 7% per annum, it is no surprise that transnational corporations and their allies within many governments are looking to regulatory approaches to limit our access to our natural heritage. More on this next column.


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About Dr Robert Verkerk

Robert Verkerk PhD Executive & Scientific Director of Alliance for Natural Health, has worked for the last 25 years on sustainability issues in the agricultural, environmental and health fields. He completed his MSc and doctorate at Imperial College London and worked as a post-doctoral research fellow in the field of trophic (feeding) level interactions in agricultural systems. Robert established the Alliance for Natural Health in 2002 to help protect and promote, using the tools of good science and good law, sustainable and natural methods of healthcare which are increasingly threatened by regulatory and pharmaceutical industry pressure. He can be contacted on Tel: 01306 646600; or

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