Animal agriculture linked to 17,900 air pollution deaths annually

Amber Brockman, Managing Editor

Reduced air quality from agricultural emissions result in 17,900 deaths per year in the United States, according to a recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences.

The study found that animal agriculture is responsible for 80% of the deaths linked to pollution from food production, with the remaining 20% attributed to plant-based foods.

Courtesy of Pixabay

The effect of agriculture can be seen on a local and global scale as agricultural emissions include odors, chemical discharges, particulates and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has limited control over the regulations at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), according to a National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report.

CAFOs are animal feeding operations (AFOs) — facilities that raise animals in confinement — distinguished by their large size or their designation as significant polluters of surface water.

“Today the pork, broiler chicken and beef sectors are all ‘highly concentrated’ in the hands of three or four companies that exercise enormous market power and control the practices used across these facilities,” according to the NRDC report. “This power extends to the regulatory sphere as well.”

The EPA’s air quality regulations are also limited for AFOs compared to other industrial sectors.

“Odors are considered an air pollutant by our federal government, by the EPA,” UW Oshkosh senior lecturer for biology and environmental studies Shannon Davis-Foust said. “However, agriculture is considered exempt from that law.”

Davis-Foust said that she is personally affected by the odors from animal agriculture.

“I live in Omro and especially the large farms are notorious for making all of Omro just reek,” she said. “I often say, ‘I gotta come to Oshkosh for fresh air,’ even though I live in the country.”

Odor complaints have become more common as liquid manure storage and spreading replaced dry manure on many different sized farms, according to a Clean Water Action Council report published in 2020.

“On factory size farms the odor was amplified because rather than having 500 animals, factory farms could contain 5,000 animals,” the report said. “Liquid manure odor is often referred to as a stench since the smell is more like what is found near some industrial sites and can be harmful to breathe.”

Liquid manure smells much different than solid manure, and the gases that cause the smell, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia, are toxic and can cause health problems, according to the report.

One of the most alarming concerns mentioned in the report is the threat from manure spraying.

“Using a traveling gun, which resembles a giant sprinkler on wheels, a CAFO can spray its manure waste onto fields and over crops,” the report said. “This raised a concern about the airborne drift of this sprayed waste and the vast distance pathogens could travel; thereby, contaminating other human food crops and surfaces such as children’s play equipment.”

AFOs are also not required to report air emissions from animal waste due to legislative changes in the 2018 Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act, according to the EPA website.

This lack of regulation may be cause for concern since, according to the EPA website, when livestock and manure emissions are combined, the agriculture sector is the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.

“One thing to keep in mind is that air moves,” UWO associate professor of environmental studies and biology Misty McPhee said. “If a farmer in California emits something, that’s going to affect somebody in Colorado, so it’s not like the air quality is the same kind of local issue.”

McPhee said dramatic changes need to happen in order to reduce the consequences of agriculture.

“My big pie in the sky answer is that we completely redo our industrial agricultural system, but that’s not a very short term or realistic answer,” McPhee said. “That’s what I think — the whole industrial system needs to be redone because there’s nothing efficient about it.”

In terms of individual changes, McPhee said, food miles should be taken into consideration.

Food miles refer to the distance food travels from the location it was grown to the location where it is consumed.

“I mean, if it’s January and you look at the tomatoes and know they’re all grown in Mexico, maybe don’t buy the tomatoes,” McPhee said. “Pay attention to where your food comes from and pay attention to how it’s grown.”

Although some people assume buying organic is about personal health, McPhee said her biggest reason for going organic is the impact industrial agriculture has on the environment.

“I’m trying to minimize the chemicals and the inputs that farmers have to use to grow their crops on these big industrial scales,” McPhee said. “So, I just try to buy small and local, if possible. I think those are very easy choices to make.”

In her sustainable food course, McPhee said she does an exercise with her students to demonstrate the lack of knowledge most people have about their food sources.

“I’d have them tell me, like, ‘Who’s your dentist, who’s your doctor, who’s your car mechanic, who’s your this and that,” McPhee said. “You know, nobody knows all those things, but nobody ever knows their farmer.”

The Oshkosh Food Co-op, a community owned grocery store, recently opened and offers a great way to buy local.

“You never have to go to Pick ‘N Save or Festival again,” McPhee said. “You can go to the food co-op and buy everything from your toilet paper to your bananas and do it in a way that supports the local economy and supports local farmers.”

McPhee said that, in consideration of climate change, action needs to be taken if we want a safe planet for people to live in.

“We need to start making a difference and take care of our world because we owe it to everyone else who lives on the planet,” McPhee said. “I mean, we as the western world are the ones who screwed everything up. The least we can do is try to help fix it.”