Agro-industrial activity has a profound negative impact on the environment, driving the climate and biodiversity crises we face, just two of the six ways in which we are exceeding the boundaries of this fragile planet. An underappreciated aspect of this activity is the effect it has on infectious disease, in particular antimicrobial resistance (AMR)—one of the WHO top 10 global health threats. Nowhere is this clearer than in global deforestation, for which there is growing evidence showing its contribution to the spread of disease and proliferation of AMR.
To reduce human environmental degradation and properly address the interconnected global health and climate crises, it is crucial to take heed of the politics of environmental governance, and through this to consider the dangers present within underregulated private-public relationships and the pathway this presents for deforestation to continue, and consequently for a further rise in AMR, already threatening to kill 10 million people a year by 2050.
Deforestation directly contributes to rising AMR—without even considering the subsequent use of antimicrobials in the agricultural holdings that are set up in deforested areas. Research has shown that deforestation leads to more contact between humans and wild animals, increasing the risk of outbreaks of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. Deforestation also introduces new sources of standing water to local environments (e.g. water containers or flooded areas), which are perfect habitats for disease vectors like mosquitos. The opportunistic mosquito increases in number and readily adapts to feed on new animals, a serious risk for creating new animal reservoirs for disease and novel routes for transmission. Zoonotic outbreaks increase pressure on health services, threatening good antimicrobial stewardship. There is even a growing body of evidence documenting the transmission of resistant pathogens between animals and humans.
Not only do we risk increasing zoonotic outbreaks, but analysis has shown that land-use change and deforestation in the Amazon region led to an increased abundance and diversity of antibiotic resistance genes in soil. As more and more areas of forest are converted for agricultural use, there is an ever-increasing risk that this growing pool of resistant genes in the soil will ultimately cross into human pathogens through horizontal gene transfer.
The surge in illegal deforestation, witnessed in regions like the Amazon and in Mozambique, during the pandemic in 2020, can be attributed to a breakdown in forest governance. Alarming statistics a substantial increase in deforestation activity, for example in Brazil where the jump from 2018 to 2019 was 85%. Private entities and malign organisations were able to exploit weak forest governance and take advantage of failures by relevant authorities to tackle the potential for behavioural changes resulting from pandemic conditions, such as a decrease in patrols, a crisis of income causing desperation for low-income workers, and other windows of opportunity.
As the Forest Declaration Assessment’s October 2023 progress report makes clear, these regions (as well as others around the world such as Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Japan) are suffering from poor forest governance. Independent and community activists, especially indigenous voices, are often at risk of repression from the state for protesting against illegal deforestation, and loopholes in policy development often mean that moratoria on deforestation and other resource extraction are broken.
Deforestation often presents as a global supply chain problem. For example, a vast number of products lining UK shelves contain palm oil, of which 90% is produced from plantations that were established following the deforestation of tropical rainforests. As highlighted in my recent article, European powers have been historically implicated in this problem, given that the destruction of these environments ‘has its foundation in European colonial activities’. It is concerning, then, that pledges made in the UK Environment Act 2021 that seek to establish a due-diligence system to filter out illegally extracted resources from UK commercial supply chains (such as Schedule 17) have not been enacted.
Also concerning to note is that, while there are environmental and governance considerations that must be adhered to for UK-based companies when it comes to procurement, there currently does not exist any obligation for these companies to examine human rights and rule of law issues in their supply chains.
UK supermarket shelves are lined with the products of deforestation. The evidence is clear, that far from UK shores, environments have been devastated by the production of these items, transformed into hotbeds for AMR and exposing local populations (and by extension, the global community) to zoonosis, and the proliferation of infectious disease. It is imperative that government, therefore, prioritise a tightening of these rules for UK companies, and enshrine justice considerations in law.
It is also clear to see that environmental degradation and weak governance provide fertile ground for the rise of antimicrobial resistance. Governments around the world must realise, and quickly, the importance of welding together rigorous scientific research in this area with policymaking and governance.
The UK, with its pivotal role in global supply chains and recent legislative commitments, has a unique opportunity to take the lead. Strengthening due diligence systems, enforcing regulations on the sourcing of commodities like palm oil and timber, and demanding justice in supply chains must become the new standard.
Collectively, we can reverse the tide of deforestation, protect against the looming threat of antimicrobial resistance, and secure a healthier future for generations to come.