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Oil palm plantations a ‘threat to global health,’ says study on outbreaks

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  • From Ebola in Africa to malaria in Brazil to tick-borne illnesses in the U.S., there is a common thread linking outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases: fluctuating forest cover, according to a recent study.
  • Deforestation and even increases in green cover can fuel the rise of diseases, the research shows, citing the link between oil palm plantations and outbreaks of malaria and dengue as a case in point.
  • The study examined linkages between forest cover changes with vector-borne and zoonotic diseases between 1990 and 2016 and found that outbreaks of both types of infections have increased.
  • The evidence that human health can suffer even as a result of misguided afforestation or plantation shows that more research is needed on the role of forests in modulating diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised plenty of questions about whether the planet’s declining health is what ails humans. The answer is yes, and it’s not a metaphorical response.

Distorting the blue planet’s green cover, hollowing out dense forests and tacking tree plantations at will fuels the rise of diseases, a growing body of research shows. From Ebola in Africa to malaria outbreaks in Brazil to tick-borne illnesses in the U.S., there is a common thread: fluctuating forest cover, a recent study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science has found.

The study authors spotlight an overlooked hazard: oil palm plantations, which they call a “threat to global health.”

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one where the pathogen emerges in animals and spills over into humans. How the SARS-CoV-2 virus made this jump is still under investigation, but one theory posits that a bat coronavirus entered human populations via an intermediary host. This scenario has raised concerns about the health risks related to wildlife trade and human incursions into natural habitats.

The new study examined linkages between deforestation and reforestation with vector-borne and zoonotic diseases between 1990 and 2016. Vector-borne diseases including malaria, dengue and Lyme disease are transmitted by insects like mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. Both vector-borne and zoonotic diseases occurred more frequently in this period, with the former seeing a marked surge.

Greener tropical countries like Brazil and Indonesia that report high deforestation rates suffer more frequent vector-borne disease outbreaks, the analysis found. Data from other nations like Peru and Bolivia in South America; the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon in Africa; and Myanmar and Malaysia in Southeast Asia, support this conclusion.

A quarter of all forest lost between 2001 and 2015 was cleared for the production of commodities like beef, soy, palm oil, and wood fiber, according to a 2018 study. Plantations of these crops have metastasized in some of the most forest-rich countries in the world. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer, and Brazil churns out most of the global supply of soybeans, and a large chunk of its beef.

In Southeast Asia, replacing forests with oil palm plantations was found to boost the abundance of Anopheles mosquitoes that transmit malaria. In Malaysian Borneo, agricultural land replacing forests led to shrinking populations of Aedes niveus but the swelling of A. albopictusboth dengue-carrying mosquitoes.

Though changes in forest cover create conditions favorable for maladies, the relationship is not straightforward. Malaria experts found that outbreaks are linked to forest clearing, especially at deforestation frontiers. But in some cases, the rise in malaria cases also leads to a dip in deforestation as those who log forests lose labor days owing to illness, creating a convoluted feedback loop.

Mapping of Ebola outbreaks in western and central Africa revealed that index cases were more likely to occur in forest fragmentation hotspots. When closed forests are pried open, amplifying people’s exposure to wild animals and pathogens, it raises the risk of zoonotic infection spillover.

The harmful impacts don’t just arise from deforestation, the research found; disease spread is also associated with unsuitable afforestation. Though such efforts can promote biodiversity and benefit carbon sequestration, they might have unintended consequences. In the U.S., for example, planting trees and growing green cover supported the resurrection of deer populations but also led to an increase in tick populations.

This was true of temperate-zone countries, which had lower forest cover. But the researchers also saw this pattern in places like China and Vietnam, which have embarked on vigorous reforestation drives. However, the authors caution that their data on the increase in green cover don’t differentiate between commodity plantations, afforestation, or abandoned agricultural lands.

The limitations of satellite imagery are only part of the problem. There is no consensus about what makes a forest.

There is no global treaty dedicated to forests. The International Tropical Timber Agreement is the only global pact that deals directly with forests, but it focuses on the sustainable timber trade. The Bonn Challenge, which aims to restore 350 million hectares (865 million acres) by 2030, and the New York Declaration for stopping deforestation are both voluntary commitments that encompass restoration of degraded land.

Adherence to these goals has encouraged countries to launch massive tree-planting drives and led to the conversion of grasslands, important ecosystems in their own right, into forests. The authors are calling for an update to the FAO’s definition of a forest so that it does not promote the expansion of forests in areas that were historically not forested.

The evidence that human health can suffer even as a result of misguided afforestation or plantation shows that more research is needed about the role of forests in modulating diseases.

Citations:

Morand, S., & Lajaunie, C. (2021). Outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases are associated with changes in forest cover and oil palm expansion at global scale. Frontiers in Veterinary Science8. doi:10.3389/fvets.2021.661063

Curtis, P. G., Slay, C. M., Harris, N. L., Tyukavina, A., & Hansen, M. C. (2018). Classifying drivers of global forest loss. Science361(6407), 1108-1111. doi:10.1126/science.aau3445

MacDonald, A. J., & Mordecai, E. A. (2019). Amazon deforestation drives malaria transmission, and malaria burden reduces forest clearing: A retrospective study. The Lancet Planetary Health3. doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(19)30156-1 

Original Source: MONGABAY

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Farmland values hit record highs, pricing out farmers

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Joel Gindo thought he could finally own and operate the farm of his dreams when a neighbor put up 160 acres of cropland for sale in Brookings County, S.D., two years ago. Five thousand or six thousand dollars an acre should do the trick, Mr. Gindo estimated.
But at auction, Mr. Gindo watched helplessly as the price continued to climb until it hit $11,000 an acre, double what he had budgeted for.
“I just couldn’t compete with how much people are paying, with people paying 10 grand,” he said. “And for someone like me who doesn’t have an inheritance somewhere sitting around, a lump sum of money sitting around, everything has to be financed.”
What is happening in South Dakota is playing out in farming communities across the nation as the value of farmland soars, hitting record highs this year and often pricing out small or beginning farmers. In the state, farmland values surged by 18.7 percent from 2021 to 2022, one of the highest increases in the country, according to the most recent figures from the Agriculture Department. Nationwide, values increased by 12.4 percent and reached $3,800 an acre, the highest on record since 1970, with cropland at $5,050 an acre and pastureland at $1,650 an acre.
A series of economic forces — high prices for commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat; a robust housing market; low interest rates until recently; and an abundance of government subsidies — have converged to create a “perfect storm” for farmland values, said Jason Henderson, a dean at the College of Agriculture at Purdue University and a former official at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
As a result, small farmers like Mr. Gindo are now going up against deep-pocketed investors, including private equity firms and real estate developers, prompting some experts to warn of far-reaching consequences for the farming sector.
Young farmers named finding affordable land for purchase the top challenge in 2022 in a September survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit group.
Already, the supply of land is limited. About 40 percent of farmland in the United States is rented, most of it owned by landlords who are not actively involved in farming. And the amount of land available for purchase is extremely scant, with less than 1 percent of farmland sold on the open market annually.
The booming housing market, among a number of factors, has bolstered the value of farmland, particularly in areas close to growing city centers.
“What we have seen over the past year or two was, when housing starts to go up with new building construction, that puts pressure on farmland, especially on those urban fringes,” Professor Henderson explained. “And that leads to a cascading ripple effect into land values even farther and farther away.”
Government subsidies to farmers have also soared in recent years, amounting to nearly 39 percent of net farm income in 2020. On top of traditional programs like crop insurance payments, the Agriculture Department distributed $23 billion to farmers hurt by President Donald J. Trump’s trade war from 2018 to 2020 and $45.3 billion in pandemic-related assistance in 2020 and 2021. (The government’s contribution to farm income decreased to 20 percent in 2021 and is forecast to be about 8 percent in 2022.)
Those payments, or even the very promise of additional assistance, increase farmland values as they create a safety net and signal that agricultural land is a safe bet, research shows.
“There’s an expectation in the market that the government’s going to play a role when farm incomes drop, so that definitely affects investment behavior,” said Jennifer Ifft, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.
Eager investors are increasingly turning to farmland in the face of volatility in the stock and real estate markets. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and a billionaire, is the biggest private farmland owner in the country and recently won approval to buy 2,100 acres in North Dakota for $13.5 million.
The number of private equity funds seeking to buy stakes in farmland has ticked higher, said Tim Koch, a vice president at an agricultural financial cooperative in the Midwest, Farm Credit Services of America. Pension funds also consider farmland a stable investment, Professor Ifft said.
Farmers, too, have witnessed an influx of outside interest. Nathaniel Bankhead, who runs a farm and garden consulting business in Chattanooga, Tenn., has banded with a group of other agricultural workers to save up to $500,000 to buy about 60 acres of land. For months, the collective has been repeatedly outbid by real estate developers, investors looking to diversify their portfolios and urban transplants with “delusional agrarian dreams,” he said.
“Places that I have looked at as potential farmland are being bought up in cash before I can even go through the process that a working-class person has to do to access land,” he said. “And the ironic thing is, those are my clients, like I get hired by them to do as a hobby what I’m trying to do as a livelihood. So it’s tough to watch.”
Mr. Bankhead characterized the current landscape as a form of “digital feudalism” for aspiring working farmers. Wealthy landowners drive up land prices, contract with agricultural designers like himself to enact their vision and then hire a caretaker to work the land — pricing out those very employees from becoming owners themselves.
“They kind of lock that person to this new flavor of serfdom where it’s, you might be decently paid, you’ve got access to it, but it will never be yours,” he said.
Unable to afford land in her native Florida, Tasha Trujillo recently moved her flower farm to South Carolina. Ms. Trujillo had grown cut flowers and kept bees on a parcel of her brother-in-law’s five-acre plant nursery in Redland, a historically agricultural region in the Miami area, about 20 miles south of downtown.
When she sought to expand her farm and buy her own land, she quickly found that prices were out of reach, with real estate developers driving up land values and pushing out agriculture producers.
A five-acre property in the Redlands now costs $500,000 to $700,000, Ms. Trujillo said. “So I essentially didn’t have a choice but to leave Miami and Florida as a whole.”
“Farming is a very stressful profession,” she added. “When you throw in land insecurity, it makes it 20 times worse. So there were many, many times where I thought: ‘Oh my God. I’m not going to be able to do this. This isn’t feasible.’”
As small and beginning farmers are shut out — the latest agricultural census said that the average age of farmers inched up to 57.5 — the prohibitively high land values may have ripple effects on the sector at large.
Brian Philpot, the chief executive of AgAmerica, an agricultural lending institution, said his firm’s average loan size had increased as farms consolidated, squeezing out family farms. This, he argued, could lead to a farm crisis.
“Do we have the skills and the next generation of people to farm it? And two, if the answer is going to be, we’re going to have passive owners own this land and lease it out, is that very sustainable?” he said.
Professor Henderson also warned that current farmers may face increased financial risk as they seek to leverage their high farmland values, essentially betting the farm to expand it.
“They’ll buy more land but they’ll use debt to do it,” he said. “They’ll stretch themselves out.”
Economists and lenders said farmland values appeared to have plateaued in recent months, as the Federal Reserve raised interest rates and the cost of fertilizer and diesel soared. But with high commodity prices forecast for next year, some believe values will remain high.
A native of Tanzania who moved to South Dakota about a decade ago, Mr. Gindo bought seven acres of land to raise livestock in 2019 and currently rents an additional 40 acres to grow corn and soybeans — all the while working full time as a comptroller to make ends meet.
For now, he has cooled off his search for a farm of his own even as he dreams of passing on that land to his son. The more immediate concern, he said, was whether his landlord would raise his rent. So far, the landlord has refrained because Mr. Gindo helps him out around the farm.
“He really doesn’t have to lend me his land,” Mr. Gindo said. “He can make double that with someone else.”
In Florida, Ms. Trujillo said, the owner of the land where her brother-in-law’s nursery sits has spoken of selling the plot while prices remain high, so he too has begun looking for his own property.
“That’s a big fear for a lot of these farmers and nursery owners who are renting land, because you just never know when the owner’s just going to say: ‘You know what? This year, I’m selling and you’ve got to go,’” she said.
In Tennessee, Mr. Bankhead said he considered giving up on owning a farm “multiple times a day” as friends who have been longtime farmers leave the profession.
But so far, he remains committed to staying in the field and doing “the work of trying to keep land in families’ hands and showing there’s more to do with this land than to sell it to real estate developers,” he said. “But the pain of not having my own garden and not being able to have my animals where I live, it never stings any less.”
Original Source: Farmlandgrab

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Anti-tick vaccine drive gives hope to farmers

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Dairy farmers in Ankole Sub-region are optimistic that the anti-tick vaccine launched by the government will solve their problem of tick resistance to acaricides.
For the last 10 years, dairy farmers across the country have decried tick resistance to acaricides, which has been ravaging the livestock sector.

Mr Emmanuel Kyeishe, a resident of Rushere in Kiruhura District and dairy farmer with more than 100 head of cattle, says dairy farmers in the cattle corridor have battled the problem of tick resistance for a long time.
“The issue of ticks has been rampant in the cattle corridor to the extent of losing our cows. We spend a lot on treating them because of ticks since they infect animals with several diseases,”  he said.

Mr Kyeishe said he loses at least two cows every month to tick-borne diseases like East Coast Fever and heart water.
“I have lost 180 cows in the last five years due to ticks and tick-borne diseases. If they do not die, they get blind and some lose their skin. But if we get a vaccine, it will have saved us a lot,” he said.
Mr Kyeishe added that he has resorted to mixing agrochemicals with acaricides since the available ones on the market are failing.

Mr Jackson Bells Katongole, a dairy farmer in Kashari, Mbarara District, said if the government’s move to have anti-tick vaccine is successful, quality of dairy products would improve.
“A farmer loses at least two to five cows every month and we have resorted to using different concoctions from Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya because the problem of ticks has made us helpless,” he said.
He added: “We had reached the point of mixing pesticides with acaricides because of tick resistance and in the process our cows have gone blind, lost skin and others died.”

Mr Katongole further said each cow that dies is valued at around Shs2.5 million, which means that a farmer loses Shs5 million every month.
The Mbarara City Veterinary Officer, Dr Andrew Akashaba, said in Mbarara alone, there are about 60,000 head of cattle, mostly exotic breeds which are prone to ticks.
“Most of the exotic breeds of cattle are at a high risk of acquiring ticks and tick borne diseases, which are a major hindrance to livestock development in the cattle corridor,” he said.
Mr Akashaba added that between 2,000 and 3,000 cows die annually in Mbarara alone due to tick-related diseases.

While launching the final clinical trial of anti-tick vaccine manufactured by National Agriculture Research Organisation at Mbarara Zardi on Thursday, the deputy director general and research coordinator, Dr Yona Baguma, assured the farmers that once the vaccine is approved, they will be spraying their cattle against ticks twice in six months as opposed to twice a week.

Original source: Monitor

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Farmers fail to access farm inputs on Ministry e-platform

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About 3,640 model farmers in Nebbi District, who were registered under the Agricultural Cluster Development Programme (ACDP) to access agricultural inputs on E-voucher, are stuck after failure of the system.

The farmers say the system has affected their planting patterns.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry under the Agriculture cluster Development Programme (ACDP) introduced the e-voucher system five years ago to enable farmers access agricultural inputs electronically.

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