Animal Farms, A Serious Source of Air Pollution

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

Air pollution from animal farms leads to nearly 13,000 deaths annually, according to a new study that links food protection and air quality harms.

  • The manure and animal feed from farms produce fine-particle pollution that leads to breathing issues as well as long-term health issues like heart disease and cancer.
  • These health impacts can be very localized and depend on geography and weather.
  • The study used new models to trace health issues back to farms miles away.

Emissions from agriculture now cause more deaths annually than pollution from coal plants, the Washington Post reports

Why This Matters: Breathing in unhealthy air is the biggest environmental health risk in the U.S., but agriculture usually isn’t part of the discussion — or regulation. This study is the first to connect air pollution death and the type of agriculture that caused it, which could be the first step toward setting standards to fix the problem.

Agriculture as a fine-particle pollution source has really flown under the radar,” University of Minnesota professor Jason Hill, the report’s lead author, told the Washington Post. “But what we eat affects not just our own health, but the health of others. We’re showing that directly.”

Study Adds to Need for Farming Changes: Animal agriculture is also a leading cause of climate-damaging emissions, water pollution, and deforestation. If meat and dairy consumption keeps growing at its current rate, it would make up 70% of the global emission budget by 2050, according to Climate Nexus.

Shifting to a plant-based diet can help, both with emissions and air quality harm. The study found that “nationwide dietary shifts that decrease consumption of animal-based foods can lead to large decreases” in deaths from particulate pollution. They calculate that substituting poultry for red meat could prevent 6,300 deaths per year and that “more ambitious shifts” to plant-based diets could prevent 10,700 to 13,100 deaths prevented per year. 

Data by Farm: The researchers broke down deaths linked to different types of agriculture product, and beef leads the way with 4,000 deaths per year — in part because the study connected crops grown for animal feed to the relevant industry. Red meat leads to 15 times more health harm from air quality than plant-based food.

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