More Trees, Less Diarrheal Disease: Analyses of Earth Observation and Survey Data Show the Importance of Ecosystem Services for Human Health and Nutrition

By Agrilinks

This month saw the release of a dire UN report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warning that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. 

While decades of research have found that anthropogenic impacts on natural systems affect the health of our natural environment, it is only more recently that researchers have begun to empirically demonstrate at scale the extent to which degradation of natural systems impact the health, food security and nutrition of human populations. 

Many of these analyses have been critically facilitated by the availability of data sensed remotely by Earth-observing satellites.  As these Earth observations data have become increasingly accessible, possibilities have expanded for integrating these data with population-based datasets like the Demographic and Health Surveys -- the gold-standard survey program that collects cross-nationally comparable data on critical aspects of population, health and nutrition throughout the developing world. 

Integrating these two types of data has allowed researchers to begin to explore associations between the natural environment (e.g., forest cover) and important health- and nutrition-related outcomes like diarrheal disease -- a leading cause of malnutrition and the second-leading cause of death globally among children under the age of 5 (World Health Organization 2017). 


Figure 1. This figure shows that Malawian children living in places with greater forest cover had statistically significantly lower odds of experiencing diarrheal disease in the two weeks prior to the survey interview. The figure also shows that children living in places with greater forest cover also had statistically significantly higher odds of consuming vitamin A-rich foods.

The findings of these studies demonstrate a consistent inverse association between forest cover and diarrheal disease: more trees, less disease. They contribute to the growing evidence base supporting the argument that a healthy, biodiverse environment is essential for healthy, well-nourished people.

This post was written by Kiersten Johnson, US Agency for International Development, Bureau for Food Security and was originally published on Agrilinks.

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