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Study links forest loss to high risk of infectious diseases

By Mwangi Mumero
Tuesday, September 15th, 2020
A forest with trees cut down. There’s link beteen loss of forests and rise in diseases. Photo/COURTESY
In summary

Forest loss due to intensification of agriculture has a direct link to occurrence of high infectious diseases such as Covid-19, researchers at the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) warns.

Pressure on forests has also led to increased malnutrition due to reduce diversity in food sources.

With rise in global population, intensification of agriculture has aimed at producing large amount of food, relying mainly on high yielding crops and livestock species.

Unfortunately, according to researchers, over-reliance on a limited number of crops and livestock species has failed to adequately address global nutrition.

“Agricultural intensification leads to deforestation and landscape degradation, permitting conditions for the further spread of a range of such virulent zoonotic diseases such as SARS, MERS, H1N1, Chikungunya, Zika and Ebola, which has been linked to deforestation,” says Dr Terry Sunderland, a senior researcher with CIFOR and professor in the Faculty of Forest at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

He adds that even with intensified agriculture, nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry, one in three is malnourished.

“Up to two billion people suffer some sort of micronutrient deficiency and associated health impacts, such as stunting or wasting,” he writes.

This increase encroachment on natural surroundings to produce more food has occasioned two adverse effects: rising malnutrition and creating conditions for emergence of endemic diseases such as Covid-19.

Theories surrounding the origins of the SARS-COV2 coronavirus often point to disturbances in the natural environment.

Through disruptions and human encroachments, pathways are formed and unlikely connections between species made.

Research indicates that Covid-19 was almost certainly transmitted from a pangolin or a bat to humans in a wet market in  Wuhan, China.

While the evidence shows that the trade in wildlife can spread pathogens and infectious diseases, human eating habits may be a big part of the equation in many ways.

“The food most associated with biodiversity loss also tends to be connected to unhealthy diets across the globe.

Production of staple foods such as rice, maize and wheat lead to loss of forests,” said Dr Sunderland.

Researchers believe the agricultural sector is responsible for up to 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, excess water use, loss of important pollinators and chemical pollution.

Farming large numbers of genetically similar livestock along the forest frontier may provide a route for pathogens to mutate and become transmissible to humans, according to researchers.

 Forest loss and landscape change bring humans and wildlife into ever-increasing proximity, heightens the risk of an infectious disease spill over.

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