The permanent transformation of forested landscapes for commodity crops currently drives more than a quarter of all global deforestation. This includes soy, palm oil, beef cattle, coffee, cocoa, sugar and other key ingredients of our increasingly simplified and highly processed diets.
The erosion of the forest frontier has also increased our exposure to infectious diseases, such as Ebola, malaria and other zoonotic diseases. Spillover incidents would be far less prevalent without human encroachment into the forest.
We need to examine our global food system: Is it doing its job, or is it contributing to forest destruction and biodiversity loss — and putting human life at risk?
What are we eating?
The food most associated with biodiversity loss also tends to also be connected to unhealthy diets across the globe. Fifty years after the Green Revolution— the transition to intensive, high yielding food production reliant on a limited number of crop and livestock species — nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry; one in three is malnourished; and up to two billion people suffer some sort of micronutrient deficiency and associated health impacts, such as stunting or wasting.
Few viruses have generated more global response than the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current pandemic. Yet in the past 20 years, humanity has also faced SARS, MERS, H1N1, Chikungunya, Zika and numerous local outbreaks of Ebola. All of them are zoonotic diseases and at least one, Ebola, has been linked to deforestation.
Farming large numbers of genetically similar livestock along the forest frontier may provide a route for pathogens to mutate and become transmissible to humans. Forest loss and landscape change bring humans and wildlife into ever-increasing proximity, heightening the risk of an infectious disease spillover.
The pandemic is further heightening pressures on forests. Increased unemployment, poverty and food insecurity in urban areas is ,forcing internal migration, as people return to their rural homes, particularly in the tropics. This trend will no doubt increase demands on remaining forest resources for fuel wood, timber and further conversion for small-scale agriculture.
The links between zoonoses and wildlife has led to many calls during the current pandemic to ban the harvest and sale of wild meat and other forms of animal source foods. That might be too hasty a reaction: wild meat is an essential resource for millions of rural people, particularly in the absence of alternative animal food sources.
It is, however, not necessarily essential for urban dwellers who do have alternative sources of animal protein to purchase wild meat as a “luxury” item. Urban markets selling wild meat could increase the risk of zoonotic spillover but not all wet markets are the same. There are countless wet markets throughout the world that do not sell wildlife products and such markets are fundamental of hundreds of millions of people.