Forests cover 31% of the total area on Earth and are responsible for producing oxygen which is so vital to ongoing survival of humans and animals. Yet, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the equivalent of forty-eight football fields worth of land in forests are lost every single minute as a result of deforestation and degrading.
Says the WWF, “Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change because they act as a carbon sink – soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be free in the atmosphere and contribute to ongoing changes in climate patterns. Deforestation undermines the important carbon sink function. It is estimated that 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are the result of deforestation.”
Deforestation can take different forms and different forests and rainforests located around the world are affected differently. Fires, cutting down trees for agricultural, living and/or development purposes, unsustainable and/or illegal timber logging and degrading due to climate change can all lead to deforestation. These causes of deforestation result in people’s lives and livelihoods being negatively affected and also threatens a wide range of plant and animal species.
An often-unintended impact of deforestation is the threat it poses to the future discovery of medical cures and remedies for diseases and illnesses. BBC News reports that “Over 50% of prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants.” If deforestation is allowed to continue it potentially prevents scientists, medical professionals and other researchers from studying and analysing different plant and tree species found in forests across the world.
Many plant and tree species are currently unknown to humans and have not yet been discovered or analysed. Tropical Rainforest Destruction claims that “Only 1% of the species of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists for medical benefits. With 137 species becoming extinct every day, there is a complete unknown possibility of pharmaceutical potential being destroyed on a daily basis.” If such species are lost forever it will be almost impossible for humans to recreate them simply because they never knew they existed to begin with. Potential cures for devastating diseases like cancer and HIV/AIDS may then become extinct before they are ever discovered.
The Guardian reports that “2,000 new species of plant are discovered every year, raising hopes of new sources of food that are resilient to disease and climate change.” Already from the 31,000 species of plants and trees known to humans, more than 5,500 are human foods, 2,500 are poisons and 1,400 have social uses such as tobacco smoking.
Some of the plant species most at risk from deforestation include the Yew tree from which a cancer drug paclitaxel is derived and the Hoodia, a plant that currently interests scientists’ due to its ability to suppress appetite. Also included in this category is the Magnolia which the Chinese have used in their traditional medicines for over 5,000 years as it is believed to help fight cancer, dementia and heart disease and Autumn crocus which was used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans as a poison but is now one of the most effective treatments for gout.
Continued deforestation will significantly affect the populations of developing countries. Around five billion people across the world rely on traditional plant-based medicines as their primary form of healthcare. If forests continue to be destroyed many of these people will not be able to gain access to the plants and trees they require for medicinal purposes and will suffer negatively health consequences as a result of this.
The loss of plants and trees that could have positive medical cures is not always at the forefront of people’s minds when they consider deforestation and the negative impacts it can cause. However, increased awareness of this potentially life or death issue is certainly required. Not only can forests help consume the carbon dioxide produced by humans and industry but they have the potential to be the source of so many future health improving and life-saving medicinal discoveries.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 12, 2017.