Your coffee and chocolate could increase malaria risk


High demand commodities contribute to deforestation and mosquito proliferation.


Luxuries like your morning coffee could also be contributing to a public health risk in developing countries.

Falco Bosser/EyeEm

By Natalie Parletta

As we’re savouring a steaming cup of coffee with a mouth-watering chocolate, we might want to spare a thought for the public health cost these luxuries could impose on developing nations.

Having linked deforestation to increased malaria transmission, researchers estimate that a fifth of this risk is driven by global demand for popular first world commodities such as cocoa, coffee, timber, palm oil, soybeans, tobacco and cotton.

And just 10 countries could be causing half of this, “where the demand for certain products could be exacerbating malaria risk for 10.7 million people in low-income, mostly African countries,” scientists write in the journal Nature Communications.

In light of this finding, they advocate for policy measures on the demand-side of these goods to be added to current interventions to control malaria, a life-threatening disease that afflicts more than 200 million people each year.

The study found that developing African countries – Nigeria, Tanzania and Cameroon – are the highest net exporters of these malaria-implicated products, while top importers are Germany, USA and Japan.

“Producers in malaria-endemic countries typically export low-value cash crops,” says co-author Arunima Malik from the University of Sydney, Australia, “which then get transferred into high-value products such as chocolate in developed countries.”

The researchers note that ecosystem degradation and malaria risk are borne by low-income producers in this unequal supply chain, with no allowance for the long-term and indirect costs.

They first linked malaria incidence in developing countries with deforestation, then to primary commodity production and supply-chain networks.

“Using a comprehensive global trade database, we traced billions of supply chains to quantify the contribution of developed nations in driving malaria risk in developing nations,” says Malik.

It’s the first study to link unsustainable human consumption to increased deforestation and malaria, she adds.

Deforestation and other rainforest disturbances can increase malaria transmission by creating warmer habitats and less predators – conditions that help mosquitoes thrive.

Consumers in affluent countries can help reduce their impact, says senior author Manfred Lenzen.

“We need to be more mindful of our consumption and procurement, avoid buying from sources implicated with deforestation, and support sustainable land ownership in developing countries.”

It can be done. Previous initiatives have successfully tackled the demand side of supply chains, such as product labelling and certification, supply-chain dialogue and green procurement standards, to address biodiversity threats, deforestation and child labour.

Certification, for instance, has helped push for dolphin-safe tuna, fair-trade chocolate, organic produce and sustainable seafood labelling.

Companies can include ecological and health considerations in their advertising and sale strategies, the authors note, and consumers can put pressure on those that are less pro-active – like they did, for instance, when pushing companies to source ethical palm oil.

As Lenzen says, the benefits extend beyond reducing malaria risk; “it will help reduce biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions as well.”

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-14954-1
  2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malaria
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