Peanut butter could trigger the next global pandemic as deadly link established

A potentially deadly link has been revealed between the next pandemic and your favourite jar of nutty spread.

Peanut butter and its mass production could be making the world less safe and more prone to outbreaks of zoonotic disease, a dismaying new study has found.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, establishes a clear link between pandemics and deforestation, in which huge swathes of trees are cut down so the land can be used for other purposes.

Deforestation is disastrous for animals who have to flee their natural habitat as it's mown down, often forcing them to live closer to human dwellings as forests and jungles are steadily depleted.

This co-habitation encourages the spread of zoonotic disease from animals to humans, much like the cross-species jump believed to have kickstarted the coronavirus pandemic in a Wuhan market in 2019.

One of the leading causes of deforestation is the obtaining of palm oil found in palm trees. This oil is used to produce a huge number of goods including cosmetics, cleaning products and, yes, peanut butter.

In fact palm oil can be found in approximately 50% of all packaged household products.

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The new study, the first to examine the cause-and-effect relationship on a global scale, suggests deforestation due to palm oil plantations increases the likelihood of zoonotic disease transmission because it destroys the habitats of animals such as bats that are known to be carriers of new diseases.

What's novel about the findings is the discovery that, counterintuitively, reforestation (meaning an increase in forest cover) may also spark more disease.

"We don't yet know the precise ecological mechanisms at play, but we hypothesise that plantations, such as oil palm, develop at the expense of natural wooded areas, and reforestation is mainly monospecific forest made at the expense of grasslands," lead author Serge Morand said.

The planting of the same crop to cover a large area reduces biodiversity and is ultimately unsustainable, despite being perceived as a positive counterweight to deforestation.

"Both land use changes are characterised by loss of biodiversity and these simplified habitats favour animal reservoirs and vectors of diseases," Prof Morand explained.

The study found a quarter of global forest loss has been due to an increased demand for products like beef and palm oil.

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Cutting down one hectare of forest for palm oil also emits 174 tonnes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of a jetliner's carbon output.

The authors conclude that rapid deforestation and the increase in palm-oil plantations between 1990 and 2016 are inherently linked to the increasing spread of zoonotic diseases, as well as vector-borne disease spread by insect bites.

Data from 47 countries suggests this connection while reforestation may have been responsible for the loss of animal biodiversity and increased zoonotic disease outbreaks in 27 countries.

"Reforestation can increase biodiversity loss when forest expansion is made at the expense of grasslands, savannas, and open-canopy woodlands," the study team writes.

"Our result shows that oil palm plantations may also constitute a threat to global health by favoring zoonotic and vector-borne diseases."

Now that the relationship between deforestation and disease has been backed up by more data, the researchers warn we must act quickly to prevent another pandemic.

They have proposed three key recommendations for policy-makers:

  1. Stop deforestation through international treaties governing forest management
  2. Develop further research on how forests and other ecosystems regulate disease
  3. Hold predatory corporations that profit from deforestation accountable

"We hope that these results will help policymakers recognise that forests contribute to a healthy planet and people, and that governing bodies need to avoid afforestation and agricultural conversion of grasslands," Prof Morand said.

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