Animal farming pollution contributes to roughly ~13,000 deaths annually (subtitle: another reason to go vegan)
Published on-line yesterday ahead of the May 18 issue of the journal PNAS, a peer-reviewed study titled “Air quality-related health damages of food” reports nearly 16,000 annual deaths from agricultural air pollution, of which 80% or nearly 13,000 are attributable to animal farming. Here’s some science for you: ammonia and ultrafine particulate matter are the big culprits, with minor contributions from nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and VOCs. Ammonia is a severe respiratory tract irritant and can be lethal at high levels. Ultrafine particulates are able to get deep into the lungs, damaging the delicate membranes across which gases are exchanged. The ultrafine particulates can also get into the bloodstream and cause heart problems. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide both contribute to acid deposition and are respiratory tract irritants. VOCs is a broad category of volatile organic compounds, many of which are carcinogenic. Not included in this study was hydrogen sulfide, associated with the breakdown of animal waste in manure lagoons. Hydrogen sulfide is also a respiratory tract irritant and can cause neurological impairment with prolonged exposure. So all in all, a nasty mix of stuff being spewed into our atmosphere by industrial animal farms.
It’s, of course, not news to me that animal agriculture produces air pollution (I have my students read an article about manure lagoons and airborne pollutants every year). The quantification of the number of deaths per year that are caused by the pollution was surprising. Not touched on in this article is that farm workers (often underpaid, un- or underinsured) and the rural communities surrounding these farms bear the brunt of this pollution. Many of those communities are primarily low-income and high percentage of people of color. This pollution is yet another example of environmental racism. Farm workers in factory farms are also subjected to terrible working conditions and on-the-job health hazards. And then there’s the greenhouse gas emissions: carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels to power all the farm equipment, methane emitted from cows themselves, methane emitted from the decomposition of animal waste in manure lagoons, and nitrous oxide emitted from the breakdown of fertilizers used to grow feed for animals. As a reminder, the UN and other groups have advocated for a shift to plant-based diets as an important solution in the climate crisis.
Add in the health and economic benefits, all in all, I think the arguments for a plant-based diet far outweigh any arguments for the continued consumption of animal products. Some of you will respond “but I like cheese too much.” (That’s the excuse I hear the most.) Well, there are plant-based alternatives to cheese now, some of them are quite fancy. But I’ll also say that you can wean yourself off of animal products gradually for a more successful transition. Start with the cliche “meat-free Monday” and gradually move to more and more vegan meals every week. It’s also ok if you “cheat” once in awhile. My parents are mostly vegan with the occasional splurge for a “real cheese” pizza or a piece of salmon for my father. The key is for most people to eat mostly plants as much as possible. The outcomes would be a healthier population (and less money spent on healthcare systems), a healthier planet, and less cruelty towards animals. You can do it! There are so many resources on the internet and so many great cookbooks on bookstore shelves. My current favorite cookbook is The Effortless Vegan by Sarah Nevins. Everything I’ve tried from it has been a hit! A good place to start on-line is the Forks Over Knives website. They have lots of recipes plus lots of articles on plant-based nutrition. You can also check out the Game Changers documentary on Netflix. It focuses on the benefits of plant-based diets for top athletes, but is very relatable. Of course, just Googling “vegan meals” will get you a million hits and lots of tasty stuff to drool over on-line. I actually feel like I have so many more food options than non-vegans that are stuck in the “meat and potatoes” mindset. So try experimenting with new things. Have some vegan food adventures!
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist