Carnegie Mellon University
May 13, 2021

Air quality–related health damages of food

Agriculture is a major contributor to air pollution, the largest environmental risk factor for mortality in the United States and worldwide. However, it is largely unknown how individual foods or entire diets affect human health via poor air quality. A new research paper from Nina Domingo and collaborators at University of Minnesota, with collaboration from EPP co-authors Peter Adams, Nick Muller, Spyros Pandis, Allen Robinson, Peter Tschofen and others, that was recently featured in The Washington Post, shows how food production negatively impacts human health by increasing atmospheric fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and identifies ways to reduce these negative impacts of agriculture. 

In the newly released study, Air quality-related health damages of food, the researchers show how food production negatively impacts human health by increasing atmospheric fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and they identify ways to reduce these negative impacts of agriculture.

The researchers quantified the air quality-related health damages attributable to 95 agricultural commodities and 67 final food products, which encompass >99% of agricultural production in the United States. Agricultural production in the United States results in 17,900 annual air quality-related deaths, 15,900 of which are from food production. Animal agriculture is the worst emitter, researchers say, responsible for 80% of deaths from pollution-related to food production. Gases associated with manure and animal feed produce small, lung-irritating particles capable of drifting hundreds of miles. These emissions now account for more annual deaths than pollution from coal power plants. Yet while pollution from power plants, factories, and vehicles is restricted under the Clean Air Act, there is less regulation of air quality around farms.

The study found that on-farm interventions can reduce PM2.5-related mortality by 50%, including improved livestock waste management and fertilizer application practices that reduce emissions of ammonia, a secondary PM2.5 precursor, and improved crop and animal production practices that reduce primary PM2.5 emissions from tillage, field burning, livestock dust, and machinery. Dietary shifts toward more plant-based foods that maintain protein intake and other nutritional needs could reduce agricultural air quality-related mortality by 68 to 83%.

In sum, the researchers found that improved livestock and fertilization practices, and dietary shifts, such as a “flexitarian” diet, could greatly decrease the health impacts of agriculture caused by its contribution to reduced air quality.

Read the full article to learn more about how current agricultural practices are contributing to air pollution.