Environmental factors including deforestation and the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife are driving the emergence of pandemics, WWF International warned on Wednesday.
“We must urgently recognise the links between the destruction of nature and human health, or we will soon see the next pandemic,” Marco Lambertini, director-general of WWF International said in a statement.
A new report from the environmental NGO lists the trade and consumption of high-risk wildlife, land-use change leading to deforestation and conversion, the expansion of agriculture and unsustainable intensification and animal production as key drivers behind the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
Zoonotic diseases are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. The current COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 445,000 people worldwide, is believed to have been transmitted to humans by bats and pangolins.
China, where the virus originated and spread through markets, has since announced a comprehensive ban on the consumption of wild animals.
But WWF warned that much more needs to be done.
“Our unsustainable global food system is driving large-scale conversion of natural spaces for agriculture, fragmenting natural ecosystems and increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock and humans,” it said.
Its report estimates that between 60% and 70% of the new diseases that emerged in humans over the past 30 years had a zoonotic origin.
During that period, 178 million hectares of forest — equivalent to the size of Libya, the 18th largest country no the world — has been cleared and converted for food or livestock production.
Land conversion for agricultural activities has caused 70% of planetary biodiversity loss and half the loss of tree cover globally to date, the WWF report states.
The NGO is calling on governments to agree on a “New Deal for Nature and People” that would see them take credible action to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and set nature on a path to recovery by 2030.
Lambertini described COVID-19 as a “tragedy” but stressed that also provides “an opportunity to heal our relationship with nature and mitigate risks of future pandemics”.
“But a better future starts with decisions governments, companies and people around the world take today,” he said.