Rethink diet-land use connections to prevent future pandemics, scientist says

Terry Sunderland on CBC radio's "The Current"
Two men stand in a forested area holding pineapples
Two men harvest pineapples in Nigeria. CIFOR/Terry Sunderland

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Methods used by smallholder farmers are central to reducing the risk of the spillover of viruses from animals to humans, according to a senior associate with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Small-scale farmers produce more diverse foods on smaller plots of land, which are also more resilient to environmental shocks, said Terry Sunderland in conversation with Matt Galloway, the host of The Current, a radio news program, which airs weekdays on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Reflecting on how food is produced, our diets, and whether we really need items that contribute to deforestation is crucial, said Sunderland, who is also a professor in the Faculty of Forestry at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“Our whole food system is reliant on a very few commodities which require large amounts of land — and the transformation of land into agriculture is directly related to deforestation,” he added.

To avoid future pandemics, “we need to be proactive instead of reactive as a society and start looking at what we can do to avoid these situations in the future,” he said. “Channelling efforts into avoiding deforestation is one way.”

Sunderland was one of three experts who spoke with Galloway about the way diseases make their way from animals to humans and how stopping deforestation could be key to preventing pandemics such as COVID-19, which is believed to have been transmitted by bats or an animal to humans.

Deforestation, or converting agricultural land into urban spaces, is responsible for about a third of all epidemics, said veterinarian and disease ecologist Jonathan Epstein, a vice president at EcoHealth Alliance.

Deforestation is driving transmission of malaria to humans from macaque monkeys on the island of Borneo, in Southeast Asia, now the main cause of malaria among people in Malaysia, said Kimberly Fornace, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the UK.

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