Is coffee consumption contributing to malaria transmission?

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Researchers from the University of Sydney (Australia) and University of São Paulo (Brazil) have studied the links between the increasing risk of malaria in developing countries and product demand from overseas, estimating that international trade drives 20% of malaria risk in deforestation hotspots. The results of the study, published in Nature Communications, suggest that demand-side approaches and legal action may be necessary to control malaria transmission in these parts of the world.

Deforestation and rainforest disturbances have already been proven to increase malaria transmission, as the resulting warmer environment with fewer predators presents an optimal environment for mosquitoes to thrive and therefore spread the disease.

This is the first study to take it a step further, investigating how global demand for commodities that increase deforestation can also increase malaria risk.

“This study is the first to assess the role of global consumption in increasing deforestation and, in turn, malaria risk,” commented Arunima Malik (University of Sydney). “Unsustainable human consumption is clearly driving this trend.”

The researchers investigated connections between the increasing risk of malaria in developing countries and products imported from global consumers.

“We achieved this by quantitatively relating malaria incidence first with deforestation, then to primary commodity production, which we then connected to global supply-chain networks and ultimately to worldwide consumer demand,” commented Malik.

The team then used a large, highly detailed database coupled with an analytical technique termed multi-region input-output (MRIO) analysis to link the two factors.

Malik explained: “This work goes beyond simple incidence mapping and correlations, in that it unveils a global supply-chain network that links malaria occurring in specific locations because of deforestation with globally dispersed consumption.”

Their findings revealed that an estimated 20% of the malaria risk in deforestation hotspots is driven by the international trade of exports including coffee, timber, soybean, cocoa, palm oil, tobacco, beef and cotton.

This statistic requires a global call for change, with more demand-side approaches to regulate the malaria-impacted global supply chains.

“What does this mean for affluent consumers?” asks Manfred Lenzen (University of Sydney). “We need to be more mindful of our consumption and procurement, and avoid buying from sources implicated with deforestation, and support sustainable land ownership in developing countries.”

Initiatives including product labelling and certification, supply chain dialogue and green procurement standards have previously been successful in addressing other trade-related issues.

“Directing consumption away from deforestation has benefits beyond the malaria link; it will help reducing biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions as well,” commented Lenzen.

Legal mechanisms could also help tackle the issue. However, in Brazil, the agribusiness sector does not wish to comply with environmental legislation compelling landowners to conserve a proportion of their land.

“If we lose this land to agricultural use, we could greatly increase malaria risk, and the bill of each case of malaria in the Amazon is paid by poor and vulnerable families in this region,” commented Leonardo Chaves (University of São Paulo). “Development never reaches the small rural producer; it just makes illness.”

Source: Chaves LSM, Fry J, Malik A et al. Global consumption and international trade in deforestation-associated commodities could influence malaria risk. Nat. Commun. 11, 1258 (2020); www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-03/uos-iyc030620.php

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