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"Include public health in tree-planting strategies"

The health problems caused by the tick or the oak processionary moth, experiencing an explosive growth last summer, clearly show the need for a careful tree-planting strategy, especially in urban areas. ‘Precision tree-planting’, Dr. Peng Jia of the University of Twente (ITC) calls it. This is based on a cross-disciplinary approach he terms ‘spatial lifecourse epidemiology’, making use of satellite data, artificial intelligence and location aware technologies. Combining all this, human, animal and environmental health can be studied in an integrated way, for making healthy and sustainable choices. Jia and his colleagues make this recommendation in Nature Plants.

It sounds contradictory: tree-planting is in itself a good thing to create a healthy and attractive environment and combat climate change. At the same time, climate change introduces new health threats associated with plants and trees. Milder winters and warmer springs, for example, caused a serious growth of the number of oak processionary moths, in turn causing serious health problems and allergic reactions. In countries like The Netherlands, there was not enough capacity for controlling the problem. According to the monitoring of agriculture using remote sensing, the past winter again was warmer than usual, across Europe. "The outbreak of the oak processionary moth may happen again this coming summer, if no effective measurements could be taken ahead", according to Dr. Tiejun Wang of the University of Twente, Faculty of Geoinformation Science and Earth Observation (ITC). He is, together with Peng Jia, one of the authors of the Nature Plants article.

One Health

Here, the trend of planting oaks, in itself a sustainable and durable choice, turned out to have severe side-effects. And during the season, the next threat seemed to be its way: the pine processionary caterpillar. This of course raises questions, what is wise to do: what plants and trees to choose in an urban environment. Spatial lifecourse epidemiology will be able to facilitate a good choice. Peng Jia has  introduced this approach. He integrates spatial technologies with artificial intelligence, big data, location-aware technology in a way that human, animal and environmental health are jointly studied as ‘One Health’. This approach will give very valuable and evidence-based data to the decision-making process by local authorities and healthcare institutions, Jia expects.

Within the ITC faculty, the departments of Natural Resources and Earth System Analysis closely cooperate on this. Peng Jia himself started the International Initiative on Spatial Lifecourse Epidemiology (ISLE). He is an expert in combining the rich amount of data using state-of-art technology. Another example of his work is the analysis of the effect of the spatial environment on human obesity. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health elected him as the winner of the Young Investigator Award 2019.

The correspondence paper ‘Worsening of tree-related public health issues under climate change’, by Peng Jia, Tiejun Wang, Arnold van Vliet, Andrew Skidmore and Maarten van Aalst, was published in Nature Plants.

ir. W.R. van der Veen (Wiebe)
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