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Tobacco Growing and the Environment: an Unfolding Global Disaster

, by Jeffrey Drope, Ph.D., University of Illinois Chicago; Fastone Goma, MBChB, Ph.D.; and Peter Magati, Ph.D.

World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) was initiated in 1987 by the World Health Organization to bring attention to the harms of tobacco use. Each year on May 31, WNTD is observed around a particular theme. For 2022, the theme is “Tobacco: Threat to Our Environment.” While the enormous cancer burden from tobacco use is well documented, this year’s theme brings attention to the lesser-known consequences of tobacco production on the environment. We invited NCI grantees Jeffrey Drope of the University of Illinois Chicago, Fastone Goma of the Centre for Primary Care Research Zambia, and Peter Magati to guest author this blog describing the research they have conducted with a multi-national team, on the economic, environmental, and human health impacts of tobacco farming.   

Mark Parascandola, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Tobacco Growing and the Environment: An Unfolding Global Disaster 

 

Tobacco cultivation is a scourge for the environment, as well as public health, in many low- and middle-income countries, destroying fragile ecosystems and otherwise potentially productive land, and impoverishing millions of families.

This year’s World No Tobacco Day highlights the complex relationship between tobacco and the environment. Cultivation of tobacco for human consumption poses significant challenges to the environment, concentrated in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), including deforestation, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and watershed destruction. The resulting environmental damage, in turn, has adverse consequences for economies and human health.

Deforestation 

Vegetation Loss

Credit: The Tobacco Atlas

Evidence demonstrates that tobacco growing contributes enormously to deforestation—likely hundreds of thousands of hectares annually— in many tobacco-growing countries, particularly in poorer areas, on marginal land with limited agricultural use, where tobacco growing has become widespread. These are precisely the places that can least afford this devastation. For example, in southern Africa, tobacco is a common crop in the miombo woodlands, a dry, fragile, and complex ecosystem home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of which are already threatened. Moreover, our research, supported by the NCI, shows that tobacco farmers in countries like Malawi are forced to contend with precarious economic conditions. To support their households, including paying school fees for their children and healthcare costs for their families, they are under pressure to maximize production.

There are multiple reasons for the increasing deforestation:

  • Due to consistently low tobacco prices, farmers—most of whom grow on small plots of land less than two hectares— seek to increase the amount of land they can use to cultivate tobacco leaf. Very often, this expansion comes at the expense of adjacent or nearby forested land. The farmers clear new land mostly by burning it. Moreover, because the soil is often not suitable for long-term agricultural use when yields start to diminish after only a few seasons, farmers will abandon the land and clear still more. The abandoned land, unfortunately, does not regenerate and the original biodiversity is never recovered

  • Many farmers around the world cultivate Virginia tobacco leaves and cure (or dry) the leaves with heat in covered barns. In most LMICs, the heat is generated by burning wood that comes from these same forests. The degradation of these forests contributes to widespread soil erosion and depletion and is also contributing to desertification in some tobacco-growing regions, including southern and eastern Africa.

Increased Emissions

Photo of shed used to cure tobacco with fire underneath and burn marks on side.

Tobacco drying shed with fire.

Credit: Dr. Jeffery Drope

The extensive burning of forests for tobacco growing in many LMICs also produces greenhouse gases of significant concern for the environment, including carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. The evidence is irrefutable that these gases contribute to climate change worldwide. The loss of forest also intensifies climate change because the land loses most or all its capacity to absorb these gases, one of our planet’s most important mechanisms to maintaining a climate equilibrium. At the same time, tobacco-growing regions in LMICs are ill-equipped to contend with climate change’s wider temperature fluctuations, longer periods without rain, and rains that come with increased ferocity. All of this contributes to a downward spiral for these communities as they deal with economic uncertainty, poor health, and generally diminished prospects.

Watershed Destruction

To maximize yields and attain commercial quality, tobacco growers use a variety of agricultural chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers, some of which are known carcinogens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that chemicals banned in many parts of the world, such as the insecticide methamidophos, persist in tobacco-growing communities in LMICs. Research by our team, supported by the NCI, in Indonesia, Kenya, and Zambia demonstrates that farmers use disproportionately more chemicals to grow tobacco compared with other crops in the same areas. 

Additionally, because tobacco is often grown as a mono-crop, leaving the soil more vulnerable to diseases and pests, and/or in regions with marginal land and poor soil, it requires even more intensive chemical use to produce a viable commercial crop. Runoff contaminated with these chemicals adversely affects the land and watersheds around tobacco farms, undermining future agricultural use, which can be devastating for food crops in regions that are already food insecure. This contamination also affects drinking water and food crops and may have consequences for human health, including cancer risk. 

There is overwhelming evidence that tobacco devastates the environment, with enormous implications for local communities as well as on a global scale. While many countries have implemented measures to reduce tobacco use, such as by raising taxes on tobacco products or restricting smoking in public spaces, few governments regulate this crop in a substantial way. Some countries, such as Argentina and North Macedonia, even subsidize its production. The tobacco industry promotes a misleading narrative that tobacco cultivation leads to prosperity for farmers. But the scientific evidence clearly demonstrates the opposite: tobacco not only kills directly by causing cancer and other non-communicable diseases among its users, but its production impoverishes families and destroys the environment. In addition to reducing its use, protecting the environment, and public health, particularly in the most fragile places, warrants a systematic and wholesale effort to reduce the cultivation of tobacco worldwide.

The research team includes the following:

Gumilang Sahadewo, University of Gadjah Mada
Firman Witoelar, Australian National University
Donald Makoka, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Raphael Lencucha, McGill University
Ronald Labonté, University of Ottawa

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