Back to search

Land-use change, agricultural expansion, and urbanization cause more than 30% of emerging disease events

New study stems from an urgent virtual workshop convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to investigate the links between pandemic risk and the degradation of nature. 

It finds that risk is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which could potentially spark a pandemic. 

COVID 19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu, the 22 experts said. 

They stressed that although the new disease has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like all pandemics, its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop.  

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife.”

Land-use change, agricultural expansion, and urbanization cause more than 30% of emerging disease events

  • Land-use change is a globally significant driver of pandemics and caused the emergence of more than 30% of new diseases reported since 1960.
  • Land-use change includes deforestation, human settlement in primarily wildlife habitat, the growth of crop and livestock production, and urbanization.
  • Land-use change creates synergistic effects with climate change (forest loss, heat island effects, burning of forest to clear land) and biodiversity loss that in turn has led to important emerging diseases.
  • Destruction of habitat and encroachment of humans and livestock into biodiverse habitats provide new pathways for pathogens to spill over and increase transmission rates.
  • Human health considerations are largely unaccounted for in land-use planning decisions.
  • Ecological restoration, which is critical for conservation, climate adaptation and provision of ecosystem services, should integrate health considerations to avoid potential increased disease risk resulting from increased human-livestock-wildlife contact.

“Escaping the era of pandemics is possible”, the experts said, but will require “a seismic shift” in approach, from reaction to prevention

Their recommendations include establishing a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention, to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; and to evaluate the potential economic impacts.  Members would also coordinate the design of a global monitoring mechanism. 

Countries could also set mutually-agreed goals or targets under an international accord or agreement, with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment. 

The report also called for enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics, for example through taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.

The “business as usual” approach of relying on response to diseases after they emerge is a “slow and uncertain path”, the experts charged, and can also threaten biodiversity. 

Furthermore, they estimate that economic impacts are 100 times the estimated cost of prevention. 

  • Science proves risk can be lowered. However, pandemic risk can be significantly lowered, the experts said, through greater conservation of protected areas, and other measures to reduce human activities that contribute to biodiversity loss. 
  • This will in turn reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help avert the spillover of new diseases. 
  • “The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion”, said Dr. Daszak.  

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are: 

  • Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best science and evidence on emerging diseases; predict high-risk areas; evaluate the economic impact of potential pandemics and to highlight research gaps. Such a council could also coordinate the design of a global monitoring framework.
  • Countries setting mutually-agreed goals or targets within the framework of an international accord or agreement – with clear benefits for people, animals and the environment.
  • Institutionalizing the One Health’ approach in national governments to build pandemic preparedness, enhance pandemic prevention programs, and to investigate and control outbreaks across sectors.
  • Developing and incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects, while reforming financial aid for land-use so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted.
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, and government policies and budgets.
  • Enabling changes to reduce the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics – this could include taxes or levies on meat consumption, livestock production and other forms of high pandemic-risk activities.
  • Reducing zoonotic disease risks in the international wildlife trade through a new intergovernmental ‘health and trade’ partnership; reducing or removing high disease-risk species in the wildlife trade; enhancing law enforcement in all aspects of the illegal wildlife trade and improving community education in disease hotspots about the health risks of wildlife trade.
  • Valuing Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ engagement and knowledge in pandemic prevention programs, achieving greater food security, and reducing consumption of wildlife.
  • Closing critical knowledge gaps such as those about key risk behaviors, the relative importance of illegal, unregulated, and the legal and regulated wildlife trade in disease risk, and improving understanding of the relationship between ecosystem degradation and restoration, landscape structure and the risk of disease emergence.

Enabling mechanisms and the role of the Rio conventions::

• Launching a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention, that would provide for cooperation among governments and work at the crossroads of the three Rio conventions to: 1) provide policy-relevant scientific information on the emergence of diseases, predict high-risk areas, evaluate economic impact of potential pandemics, highlight research gaps; and 2) coordinate the design of a monitoring framework, and possibly lay the groundwork for an agreement on goals and targets to be met by all partners for implementing the One Health approach (i.e. one that links human health, animal health and environmental sectors).

A high-level coordinating structure that is stable over time, funded by country contributions, and with a clear mandate to use One Health approaches to prevent pandemics, could ensure the necessary synergies to institutionalize a global strategy to break free of the Pandemic Era. This "high level council" could work at the crossroads of the activities and actions of the three Rio conventions, while having strong links with the other biodiversity conventions, including CITES and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

Conclusion :

This report is published at a critical juncture in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, at which its long-term societal and economic impacts are being recognized. People in all sectors of society are beginning to look for solutions that move beyond business-as-usual. To do this will require transformative change, using the evidence from science to re-assess the relationship between people and nature, and to reduce global environmental changes that are caused by unsustainable consumption, and which drive biodiversity loss, climate change and pandemic emergence. The policy options laid out in this report represent such a change. They lay out a movement towards preventing  pandemics that is transformative: our current approach is to try to detect new diseases early, contain them, and  then develop vaccines and therapeutics to control them. Clearly, in the face of COVID-19, with more than one million human deaths, and huge economic impacts, this reactive approach is inadequate.

This report embraces the need for transformative change and uses scientific evidence to identify policy options to prevent pandemics. Many of these may seem costly, difficult to execute, and their impact uncertain. However, economic analysis suggests their costs will be trivial in comparison to the trillions of dollars of impact due to COVID-19, let alone the rising tide of future diseases.

The scientific evidence reviewed here, and the societal and economic impacts of COVID-19 provide a powerful incentive to adopt these policy options and create the transformative change needed to prevent future pandemics. This will provide benefits to health, biodiversity conservation, our economies, and sustainable development. Above all, it will provide a vision of our future in which we have escaped the current ‘Pandemic Era’.  

NOTE: The report, its recommendations and conclusions have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by the member States of IPBES – it represents the expertise and perspectives of the experts who participated in the workshop, listed here in full:

the report and the referenced resources find here, see some of them listed below