Tobacco poses a major challenge, not just to health, but also to environmental sustainability. Today being world forest day, I thought it would be appropriate to tackle this matter.
First let me share some interesting statistics on tobacco farming. An estimated 200 000 ha of forests/woodlands are removed by tobacco farming each year. Deforestation mainly occurs in the developing world, amounting to 1.7% of global net losses of forest cover or 4.6% of total national deforestation. Environmental criticality exists or is emerging in 35 countries with an estimated serious, high, and medium degree of tobacco-related deforestation, mainly in Africa, middle east, south, and east Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. Deforestation for tobacco growing has many serious environmental consequences — including loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has noted — without providing data — the consequences of tobacco-related deforestation in the form of fuelwood shortages among rural populations in the developing world. Among the underlying causes of tobacco-related deforestation are, the usage of wood in the farm-based process of curing the crop, that is, drying the leaves, and the global shift of production into low-cost producer countries of the developing world which typically have fragile natural environments. Not considered here, but relevant especially under tropical conditions, are the agricultural practices of topping and desuckering, that is, designing the tobacco plant as a consumer product that will have a high nicotine content. The result is a uniquely high uptake of all macronutrients from the soil, and tobacco’s regular need for fertile soils which are often provided by land clearances involving deforestation.
Tobacco harm reduction on the other hand, can help tackle the issue of deforestation. As demand for cigarettes is on a steady decline thanks to harm reduction & safer nicotine products, less tobacco is needed. Tobacco sales are plummeting due to safer alternatives & this is a positive for our forests, as demand decreases, production decreases as well. Policy makers & governments should recognize this approach as a positive way of saving forest cover, and train tobacco farmers to diversify to other viable crops.
The global decline of smoking thanks to tobacco harm reduction can have many positive health and environmental impacts. As demand for tobacco leaves decreases over time, it’s leading to a correspondingly dramatic decrease in the amount of land dedicated to tobacco production, which in turn will save our forests.
If we are serious about tackling climate change, then the harm reduction approach should be deemed favorable.