Poor air quality caused by food production in the United States results in 16,000 deaths per year, 80% of which are linked to animal production, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Research has also revealed that there are steps farmers and consumers can take to reduce the health effects of the foods we eat that are related to air quality.
In an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers measured how the production of various foods affects air quality, finding that animal production is largely responsible for the health impacts associated with agricultural air quality. The study – the first food-for-food report on damage to air quality caused by agriculture – also shows how improved animal and crop management practices, as well as how richer diets in plants, can significantly reduce food mortality. related air pollution.
“Discussions about the environmental impacts of different foods typically focus on their greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, and impacts on biodiversity, but little is known about how different foods affect air quality. Our research allows this important piece of the puzzle to be included in the conversation, ”said Nina Domingo, a doctoral student in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences and from the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
The authors estimated the extent to which agriculture increased the levels of fine particles, or PM2.5, in the air. Chronic exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Agricultural activities such as plowing land, fertilizing crops, and storing and spreading manure all release pollution that increases PM2.5 levels.
Foods of animal origin tend to have higher air quality-related damage to human health than plant-based foods due to the pollution released by the manure of the animals themselves and by the use of fertilizers and tillage when growing crops – mainly corn, hay and soybeans. – that they eat. Ammonia, which is released in large quantities from nitrogen fertilizers and manure, is of particular concern because it reacts with other pollutants to form PM2.5.
The study shows that, per serving, the average air quality damage of red meat to human health is twice that of eggs, three times that of dairy products, seven times that of that of poultry, 10 times higher than that of nuts and seeds, and at least 15 times higher than the average for other plant-based foods.
“The air quality-related mortality of the US food system is comparable to that of other sources of air pollution, such as motor vehicles and power generation. Nonetheless, food-related emissions are lightly regulated and less studied than these other sectors, “said Jason Hill, professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. Fortunately, food mortality related to air quality can be reduced by improving fertilizer and manure management practices, and by adopting diets containing larger servings of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and other plant-based foods.
The paper also finds that many of the steps that farmers and consumers can do to reduce food-borne pollution have many benefits beyond improving air quality, such as reducing emissions from food. greenhouse gases, reducing water pollution and preventing species extinction. In addition, these actions can improve the profitability of farms and contribute to better health through healthier diets.
“There are many solutions available that can improve health outcomes related to air quality,” said Domingo. “Significant changes will require the coordinated efforts of farmers, food companies, consumers and policy makers.
The research was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency through the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions (CACES), the US Department of Agriculture and the Wellcome Trust. The research team included researchers from the University of Minnesota, the University of Oxford, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington, and the University of Illinois.