Impacts of Food Production on Air Quality and Health
One of the greatest environmental health risks the world is currently facing is poor air quality, with the agricultural activities being a major contributor of harmful air pollutants both in the United States and globally. Yet, very little studies have been conducted regarding the environmental and health impacts resulting from food production. A new study, which was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, estimates the health impacts arising from air pollution originating from agricultural activities in the US. The study found that 80% of the 15,900 deaths recorded in the US annually that are caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollutants can be attributed to animal-based food products.
The agricultural sector is a major source of air pollution, which is the leading environmental cause of human mortality both in the US and globally. But there is very little understanding of how individual agricultural products or entire diet choices negatively impact human health as a result of their contribution to poor air quality.
The authors of the new study reveal how agricultural food production in the US contributes to poor health by increasing levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere, and also identifies and proposes things we can do to reduce the negative health impacts resulting from producing the food we need to sustain us. The study quantifies and outlines the health impacts arising from poor air quality caused by 95 different agricultural commodities used in food production as well as 67 final food products which account for more than 99% of all agricultural production in the US.
In the US alone, poor air quality arising from agricultural production contributes to 17,900 deaths, of which 15,900 are related to food production. The study found that 80% of food production-related deaths were attributed to animal-based food production, either directly as a result of raising animals for food, or indirectly as a result of cultivating animal feed crops.
The authors propose intervention measures that agricultural food producers can implement on-farm to reduce air quality-related deaths by 50%. These measures include improving the management of livestock waste and fertilizer application methods in order to reduce ammonia emissions, and improving animal and crop production methods in order to reduce primary particulate emissions arising from burning fields, tillage, livestock dust and operating machinery.
The authors suggest that moving towards a diet that incorporates more plant-based foods but which is still high in protein and other essential nutrients could improve air quality and reduce mortality resulting from agricultural air pollutants by between 68-83%.
The authors conclude that improving livestock production and fertilization methods, and shifting to a more plant-based diet could vastly reduce the negative health impacts caused by poor air quality stemming from agricultural practices, and ultimately save lives.
The results of this study are important to a wide range of sectors, including food producers, food processors, and food distributors, as well as to policymakers and private individuals who wish to reduce their environmental footprint by switching to a more environmentally-friendly diet that has does not contribute to poor air quality and ultimately poor health.
Nina G.G. Domingo, et al. Air quality-related health damages of food. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. May 2021, 118 (20) e2013637118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013637118
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