Air pollution from animal agriculture kills nearly 13,000 people in the United States every year, according to a new study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Usually air pollution focuses on life-shortening pollutants created from burning fossil fuels, but this new look at industrial agriculture highlights the danger of living near mega-farms that spew other pollutants like ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulfide.
Overall, the study estimates that more than 17,000 people die prematurely due to pollution originating on farms. But by far, farms raising animals are the most to blame for the fine-particle pollution that can lodge keep into the lungs and cause cardiovascular disease, cancer and strokes.
How Is Animal Agriculture Linked to Air Pollution?
Most of the air pollution outlined in the study isn’t coming from sustainable, picturesque farms of the past. Today, about 99 percent of farm animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
In this industrialized farming model, thousands of animals are confined to small spaces in an attempt to create dairy, beef, chicken and pork products faster and cheaper.
But more and more studies show the price of this cheap food isn’t including the air, water and soil pollution that threatens people living in the vicinity of CAFOS.
Animal agriculture pollutes the air mainly tiny particles of pollution known as PM2.5. Although tilling and dust can create this type of pollution, this study found that ammonia is the most deadly culprit. Ammonia in animal waste and fertilizer easily mingles with other atmospheric gases to create harmful particles that take hold in your respiratory tract and bloodstream.
The study authors estimate that shifting toward more nutrient-dense plant-based foods could slash deaths related to agricultural air pollution by 68 to 83 percent.
Industry Response to Air Pollution form Animal Agriculture Study
The amount of waste produced by industrialized farming is astounding.
Just consider these animal agriculture facts:
- Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities
- A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce more than 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That’s 1.5 times the amount of sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia.
- Every year in the United States, livestock animals create three to 20 times more manure than people produce here.
Still, despite the evidence, the industrialized farming industry criticized the latest study, saying North Carolina hog farmers have made changes changes in feed efficiency to lower ammonia levels by 22 to 54 percent.
Still, that may not be enough to comfort the low-income, and often minority, families who live near these enormous farms popping up all over places like coastal North Carolina.
A 2018 study found living in the same zip code as a hog CAFO was linked to:
- 30 percent more deaths in people with kidney disease
- 50 percent more deaths in anemic people
- 130 percent more deaths among people with sepsis
The researchers also found a connection between living near a CAFO and:
- Dying early of any cause
- Dying from tuberculosis
Why Traditional Animal Agriculture Is Bad for the Environment (and Us!)
You may have driven through areas of industrialized farming with air quality so poor, your eyes watered and you had to pinch your nose. But can you imagine living there?
Researchers are continually publishing data showing the threats of living near CAFOs, urging for change to protect not just the environment, but human health, too.
“Research has consistently found that living near CAFOs is associated with an array of negative health impacts, including respiratory disease, mental health problems, and certain types of infections,” says Keeve Nachman, PhD, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Animal agriculture pollution is tied to all sorts of harmful exposures to things like:
- Dangerous pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant superbugs
- Toxic gas vapors
These sources of farm and animal waste pollution are tied to health ailments like:
- Eye irritation
- Uterine cancer
- Lung cancer
- interstitial lung diseases
- Asthma symptoms
Animal studies also suggest that exposure to high levels of ammonia in air may adversely affect other organs, such as the liver, kidney and spleen.
Beyond that, most manure storage systems used by CAFOs also contribute to potent greenhouse gas emissions that further destabilize the climate. For instance, storing manure in a manure pit or “lagoon” causes the manure to break down anaerobically, causing higher levels of methane and nitrous oxide, which are 23 and 300 more potent greenhouse gases compared to carbon dioxide.
The environmental impact of animal agriculture also impacts water pollution levels, too.
States with high concentrations of CAFOs experience, on average, 20 to 30 serious water quality problems per year as a result of manure management issues.
One example? When Hurricane Florence dumped 9 trillion gallons of water on North Carolina within a four-day period in 2019, hog manure lagoons overflowed and saturated drinking water wells with E. Coli and other dangerous contaminants. This disproportionately impacted Black and Native American communities.
The R.A.N.C.H. Model
Thankfully, there are much healthier ways to produce enough food for the world. Regenerative agriculture treats the whole farm as a holistic system. It focuses on actually improving soil, air and water quality while producing nutritious food in a safer way.
Natural health experts Dr. Josh Axe and Jordan Rubin teamed up to develop the R.A.N.C.H. Model and are implementing it at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Sustainability’s farm in Tennessee.
R.A.N.C.H. stands for:
- Climate health
The focus is on:
- Changing farming practices to positively impact the planet
- Improving the farm ecosystem by focusing on soil health
- Building soil biodiversity to capture excess carbon in the atmosphere, where it causes climate chaos, and lock it into the soil
The farm model aims to do this by utilizing:
- No-till farming
- Cover crops
- Crop rotations
- Natural grazing
That last item is in stark contrast to CAFOs. Instead of creating more pollution, natural grazing on pasture promotes animal welfare while increases soil health to promote carbon sequestration. As it turns out, one of the major solutions to mitigating climate change is right under our feet!
If the practices outlined above became standard practice, it could remove 250 million metric tons or more of carbon dioxide per year in the United States alone.
That’s about 5 percent of the U.S.’s annual CO2 emissions, which totaled 5.4 billion tons in 2018.
- A 2021 study found that air pollution from animal farms kills about 13,000 people a year in the United States.
- Ammonia from animal waste and fertilizer readily mixes with other gases in the air to create dangerous fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.
- This pollution lodges deep into the respiratory tract and is linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and strokes.
- The environmental impact of animal agriculture was on public display in XXXX when
- Favoring more nutrient-dense, plant-based foods could slash deaths related to agricultural air pollution by 68 to 83 percent.
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