According to a groundbreaking new study, animal-based food is responsible for an estimated 80 percent of annual air-pollution deaths related to food production in the United States. In fact, per serving, the air-pollution death rate connected to red meat is at least 15 times higher than that of plant-based foods!
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the report’s lead author, University of Minnesota professor Jason Hill, this is the first major report linking air-pollution deaths to specific foods. Hill stated:
The food system has really flown under the radar. But what we eat affects not just our own health, but the health of others. We’re showing that directly.
The report states that gases from manure and animal feed contain harmful particles that can drift hundreds of miles. These particles are responsible for more yearly deaths than pollution from coal power plants. Despite this, air quality on farms is hardly regulated.
According to the report, one of the reasons farm emissions are so dangerous is that they can interact with other gases in the atmosphere and become more hazardous. For example, ammonia from manure can combine with other pollutants to create small, deadly particles. The report estimates that ammonia emissions contribute to around 12,400 deaths per year. Hill said, “Of all pollutants, ammonia is the one that has the greatest impact on mortality.”
Huge amounts of ammonia are released by factory farms, which often store waste from pigs, cows, and other animals in massive “lagoons.” Many factory farms even spray liquid waste into the air and on fields, causing further contamination.
Pollution from factory farms disproportionately harms low-income communities and communities of color. In 2016, Environmental Working Group released a collection of maps and data revealing that the environmental cost of North Carolina’s 6,500 factory farms disproportionately affected vulnerable communities. And researchers from Duke University found that rates of death in North Carolina communities with pig farms were a horrifying 30 percent higher than those of communities in other parts of the state.
While the report states that factory farmers can take steps to mitigate the harmful effects of farming animals, the greatest power lies with consumers. According to the report, if people began eating primarily plant-based foods, deaths related to agricultural air quality could be reduced by 63 to 83 percent. Hill said:
It’s one thing to eat a low carbon diet. But it’s another to say, “Gosh if I eat this delicious lentil dish instead of a hamburger it might be better for my own health but also for other people.”
Start making a difference for animals, the planet, and human health today! Download our free Vegetarian Starter Guide to learn how.