Which Foods Cause The Most Air Pollution?
Air pollution is one of the largest environmental threats to human health.
Every year, the emissions caused by food production are responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the United States. And yet, the relationship between air pollution and agricultural production is largely missing from the public debate.
This paper set out to fill an existing knowledge gap by estimating the impact of agriculture on human health and suggesting measures to reduce mortality. To do so, researchers estimated the impact of the different pollutants, production processes, and sources used to produce commodities and products. More specifically, they estimated the number of annual premature deaths related to the production of 95 agricultural commodities and 67 food products commonly found in the U.S.
A vast body of research has previously shown that agricultural production increases the amount of fine particulate matter (PM) in the atmosphere, and that chronic exposure to agriculture-related air pollutants is linked to an increased risk of premature death. This research goes a step further by quantifying the damage and estimating that:
- Air pollution by fine particulate matter is deemed to be responsible for 15,900 annual deaths in the U.S.
- Of those deaths, about 12,700 are attributed to the production of animal-based foods, particularly by both primary and secondary PM emissions from farmed animals waste and fertilizers.
- 4,800 deaths are caused by emissions of primary PM, as a result of land burning and preparation, the use of dusting powders on farmed animals and fuel combustion.
- Damages caused by agricultural production are spatially concentrated, with the most affected counties being in California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and in the Upper Midwest Corn Belt.
- Out of 11 different food groups, red meat production is responsible for the highest number of premature PM-related deaths.
- Changes in production practices and in consumption habits can reduce mortality.
- In particular, adopting a vegan diet could cause an 83% decrease in the mortality numbers linked to PM.
In this paper, researchers suggest different types of interventions to reduce PM-related mortality caused by food production. These include producer-side interventions targeting the most harmful agricultural processes. For example, changing animal feed, improving fertilizer application, and a better management of manure waste can all contribute to reducing harmful emissions.
However, the study also suggests consumer-side mitigation such as reducing food waste, lowering the caloric intake per person as suggested by national dietary guidelines, and shifting diet. The diets assessed in this research are flexitarian (the EAT-Lancet “planetary health” diet), vegetarian, and vegan as opposed to the current meat-rich U.S. diet. Among these dietary options, a vegan diet is estimated to hold potential for the most significant reduction (-83%) in the number of annual premature deaths related to PM atmospheric emissions.
Animal advocates, environmental advocates, and health campaigners, as well as policymakers, can gain valuable insight from this research. In fact, as the human population grows and meat-rich diets become increasingly more widespread, tackling the health consequences of agricultural air pollution becomes more and more important. In particular, animal advocates based in the counties directly affected by agricultural air pollution can use the data published in this study to promote the adoption of a vegan diet, raise awareness of the health damages of animal food production, and lobby for policies that promote animal-, environment- and health-friendly diets.