rethink everything


RE-Wave3_AuthorsWeb-Max.png   By Dr. Maximilian Martin, Global Head of Philanthropy, Lombard Odier

The Holocene extinction is the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history—and we are living through it. Not only that, we—humans—are believed to be the primary cause1. Although the ocean, which constitutes 99% of Earth’s biosphere2, is a far more stable environment than land, we now know that the impact of human activity is being felt even beneath the waves. Less well known is the debilitating effect this could have on our potential to prevent, treat and cure disease, from inconvenient ailments to the most ruinous maladies of our age.

Life in our oceans faces threats on many fronts. Overfishing is rife—of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 52% are fully exploited and 17% are overexploited3. Plastic is now a pandemic, with at least 5.25 trillion fragments weighing over 265,000 tons currently floating at sea4. The oceans themselves are getting warmer, with temperatures across all four major ocean basins showing robust upward trends for the last three decades5. With such a diverse range of problems to tackle, it’s hard to even conceive of ocean ecology as a homogenous issue.

So, to get a handle on the kinds of effects these concerns have on submarine life and beyond, it helps to zoom in on a single oceanic ecosystem.

Take coral reefs, rich in biodiversity. Their close proximity to the surface makes them highly affected by human activity.

Beyond direct environmental effects, their preservation has important implications for other fields such as global public health.

Concerning corals

Overfishing disrupts the balance of the food chain. Suppose the stocks of a reef’s herbivorous fish are overexploited. Without enough fish to eat it, the algae that grows on corals may eventually take over. If it does, the reef undergoes a “phase-shift”, in which the slow-growing corals are entirely replaced by seaweed or fleshy algae6. And certain fishing techniques are directly destructive in themselves. Catching fish using bottom trawling nets7, stunning them with cyanide8, and even killing them with dynamite9 all cause enormous damage to corals.

We recently published an article about microfibre pollution, in which we spoke about the dangers these particularly tiny pieces of plastic pose to marine life. Corals are no exception. A 2015 study found that corals are prone to confusing microfibres for prey. Once consumed, these microfibres are found wrapped in tissue inside the gut, which could damage the health of corals10.

Perhaps most destructive of all is bleaching. When coral polyps are stressed by being in water that is too warm for too long they expel the algae living inside their tissues, giving the coral a white appearance. Unfortunately, these algae also provide the coral with around 90% of its energy. If the temperature remains too high, it will starve. In short, climate change is causing coral reef bleaching, sometimes in global events. The 2015-16 bleaching event, for example, affected 75% of the world’s reefs, and killed nearly 25% of the corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef11.

These are just some of the problems facing our coral reefs. Being some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the natural cost of their destruction would be catastrophic.

Further, failure to protect coral reefs could also mean failure to prevent, treat and cure many diseases.


Marine medicine

There’s a common misconception that “medicine” represents a synthetic approach to curing ailments, while “alternative medicine” is a more natural way to go. Apart from this not being what these terms technically refer to, it would be quite inaccurate if it were. For instance, of the cancer drugs that were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration between the 1940s and 2014, only 25% were completely synthetic, and 49% were either completely natural products or derived from natural products12.

For obvious reasons, most of the many naturally-sourced drugs in use today are sourced from land-dwelling species. And yet, over 80% of diverse plant and animal species on Earth live in the oceans13. To spell out the obvious implication—there’s a pharmaceutical goldmine beneath the waves just waiting to be tapped into.

Not that we haven’t started.

Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea have already proven themselves to be an incredibly valuable medicine cabinet.

Take, for instance, Cryptotethya crypta, a large sponge found on reefs in the shallows of the Caribbean. In the 1960s, scientists studying the sponge discovered a chemical14 commonly known as vidarabine. By itself, vidarabine is now used as an antiviral drug to treat the herpes simplex, chickenpox and shingles15 viruses. With a little tinkering, scientists turned it into AZT16, a drug now used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS17. Also discovered in this species were chemicals from which scientists synthesised Ara-C—the first anticancer agent derived from a marine animal ever developed for clinical use, which is now routinely used to treat leukaemia and lymphoma18. Pretty impressive, for a sponge.

This pharmaceutical bounty was harvested from a single species in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth.

Today, the pharmaceutical potential of coral reefs remains largely untapped. If we fail to protect them, they will remain so forever.

Turning the tide

If global warming advances on the path currently projected, a University of Washington study estimates that average temperatures will most likely rise will by 3.2 degrees Celsius by 2100; 2°C is the “best case scenario,” and there is a 90% chance that global temperatures will increase between 2° and 4.9° Celsius.19 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the high-likelihood scenario sees mean sea levels rise by 74 cm.20 Combined with higher sea temperatures, this is expected to have dramatic effects on ocean life.

Next to policy and philanthropy, the way forward to protect our oceans is investing in companies that embrace climate and resource efficiency. Exceeding issuance of $100 billion for the first time in 2017, the rapid growth of the green bond market has already shown that capital markets can play a powerful role in supporting efforts to mitigate global warming.

Economic and reputational incentives for industries that have traditionally been major ocean polluters to graduate from a ‘take, make, dispose’ manufacturing model to a regenerative system where resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised is a logical next step. For instance, the problem of microfibre pollution in the fashion industry is receiving more focus than ever. We also need to find a way forward for businesses whose operations have a direct impact on our oceans.

Toxic levels of emissions from drug manufacturing are themselves sources of ocean pollution.21 With global health spending expected to increase from $9.2 trillion in 2014 to $24.3 trillion in 2040, pharmaceutical companies themselves will be increasingly in focus.22

As industries across the board adopt a 360 degree or “cradle-to-cradle” business models, those who are tapping into the pharmaceutical bounty of the ocean are bound to come under scrutiny; there is a case to avoid investing in pharma businesses who are failing to clean up their act and, ironically, polluting what could become the strategic part of their value chain. Investing in sustainable marine pharmacologists will be vital for protecting the medicine cabinets of our future.

Capital markets and adopting a “pharm-ecology” view on investing have all the potential to play a catalytic role in protecting our oceans. The cures for our greatest maladies may lie beneath the waves. Our chances of discovering any one of those cures reduces with every species we lose. The time to turn the tide is now.

1 Bioscience 
3 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 
4 Lombard Odier 
5 Wang and Cheng, 2017 
6 National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis
7 Oceana 
8 Scientific American 
9 National Geographic 
10 Hall et al.
11 The Guardian 
12 Norman and Cragg, 2016 
13 Malve, 2016 
14 A nucleoside, for those interested
15 Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the same virus—varicella zoster
16 Azidothymidine
17 Anjum et al., 2016 
18 Schwartsmann et al., 2001
19 Cleantechnica, 2017
20 IPCC Scenarios, 2017
21 Larsson, 2014  
22 Global Burden of Disease Health Financing Network, 2017

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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