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Emerging human infectious diseases and the links to global food production


Infectious diseases are emerging globally at an unprecedented rate while global food demand is projected to increase sharply by 2100. Here, we synthesize the pathways by which projected agricultural expansion and intensification will influence human infectious diseases and how human infectious diseases might likewise affect food production and distribution. Feeding 11 billion people will require substantial increases in crop and animal production that will expand agricultural use of antibiotics, water, pesticides and fertilizer, and contact rates between humans and both wild and domestic animals, all with consequences for the emergence and spread of infectious agents. Indeed, our synthesis of the literature suggests that, since 1940, agricultural drivers were associated with >25% of all — and >50% of zoonotic — infectious diseases that emerged in humans, proportions that will likely increase as agriculture expands and intensifies. We identify agricultural and disease management and policy actions, and additional research, needed to address the public health challenge posed by feeding 11 billion people.

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Funds were provided by grants to J.R.R. from the National Science Foundation (EF-1241889, DEB-1518681, IOS-1754868), the National Institutes of Health (R01GM109499, R01TW010286-01), the US Department of Agriculture (2009-35102-0543) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (CAREER 83518801). G.A.D. and S.H.S. were supported by National Science Foundation (CNH grant no. 1414102), NIH grants (R01TW010286-01) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Stanford GDP SEED (grant no. 1183573-100-GDPAO) and the SNAP-NCEAS-supported working group ‘Ecological levers for health: advancing a priority agenda for Disease Ecology and Planetary Health in the 21st century’. J.V.R. was supported by the National Science Foundation Water, Sustainability, and Climate program (awards 1360330 and 1646708), the National Institutes of Health (R01AI125842 and R01TW010286), and the University of California Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (award # 17-446315). M.E.C. was funded by National Science Foundation (DEB-1413925 and 1654609) and UMN’s CVM Research Office Ag Experiment Station General Ag Research Funds. We thank K. Marx for contributing the artwork in Fig. 1.

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J.R.R. developed the idea and wrote most of the paper. Figure 1 was developed by S.H.S. and G.A.D., Figs. 2 and 4 were developed by J.R.R., Fig. 3 was developed by K.H.N. and B.D., Fig. 5 was developed by D.J.C., M.E.C. and R.S.O., and Box 1 was developed by D.J.C., M.E.C. and J.V.R. All authors substantially contributed ideas, revisions and edits.

Correspondence to Jason R. Rohr.

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Fig. 1: Some common relationships between agriculture and human health.
Fig. 2: Proposed effects of human population growth and associated increases in agricultural production on the risk of human infectious diseases.
Fig. 3: Projected increase in global human population and its expected effect on components of agriculture.
Fig. 4: Livestock pathogens and zoonoses.
Fig. 5: Effects of agricultural drivers on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) and zoonotic EIDs of humans since 1940.