Meat Production Is Polluting the Air You Breathe

By Amy Norton
HealthDay reporter

TUESDAY, May 11, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Steaks and burgers could kill thousands of Americans every year, but in a way most people wouldn’t expect – via air pollution.

That’s the conclusion of a new study that estimates that airborne particles generated by food production kill nearly 16,000 Americans each year. Pollution linked to animal products – especially beef – is responsible for 80% of these deaths.

“What we eat affects not only our own health, but the health of others,” said researcher Jason Hill, professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul.

Agriculture generates pollutants in many ways, but Hill’s team focused specifically on its role in fine particle pollution – tiny airborne substances that can be inhaled deep into the lungs.

It can be especially dangerous for people with heart or lung disease, and the World Health Organization says exposure to dirty air kills around 7 million people worldwide each year.

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Agricultural activities such as plowing fields, fertilizing crops, and spreading and storing manure all contribute to fine particle pollution.

Growing plant foods creates certain pollutants, but not in animal products. It’s not just the cattle themselves – think manure – but the crops that are grown to feed them, Hill said.

Raising cattle requires the most resources and produces the most pollution.

As a result, the study found that air pollution from red meat production caused the most damage: per serving, its impact on deaths was seven times that of poultry, 10 times that of nuts, and seeds and at least 15 times that of other plants. food.

“Red meat has such a big impact that reducing our consumption of this one drink could make a big difference,” Hill said.

Gidon Eshel, a researcher not involved in the study, agreed.

Beef production “has by far the most significant environmental and health consequences,” said Eshel, a research professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.

It is well known that agriculture contributes to air pollution, Eshel said, and that air pollution contributes to deaths.

But the new findings, he said, show “vividly and numerically” how the nation’s collective food is contributing to the death of the people.

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The study – published May 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – was partially funded by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Department of Agriculture.

He used emissions data from the EPA to measure the impact of different agricultural activities on the air quality of US counties. The researchers then used statistical models to estimate the effects of fine particle pollution, from various agricultural sources, on annual deaths nationwide.

The verdict: Agriculture generates enough dirty air to kill approximately 18,000 Americans each year. Specifically, ammonia from livestock waste and fertilizers was one of the main culprits, the researchers said.

Of those deaths, the vast majority – nearly 16,000 – were linked to food production, mainly meat, poultry and dairy products.

To get a more positive view, Hill’s team also estimated the impact of potential solutions.

They found that certain agricultural measures – such as improving fertilizer application – could prevent some deaths.

But changes to the American diet would bring far greater benefits: If veganism and vegetarianism swept across the country, most of the deaths described could be prevented, the researchers found.

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However, Hill stressed, “you don’t have to become an absolutist.”

His team projected that a “flexitarian” diet would also prevent a large number of deaths. This refers to diets that are largely plant-based, but allow certain animal products in moderation.

Given the strong effects of red meat, Hill noted, even declaring “Meatless Mondays” might make a difference.

But would there be any adverse health effects by avoiding animal protein?

Eshel said there was “not the slightest bit of evidence” that people need animal protein for good health – but a “mountain of evidence” supporting the benefits of plant-based diets.

In a 2019 study, Eshel estimated that if all Americans traded meat for replacement plants, it would lead to a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions and the use of cropland and nitrogen fertilizers.

And with sources like soy and buckwheat providing protein, the study found that there wouldn’t be any damage to the nutrients either.

But Eshel also acknowledged that a nationwide adoption of veganism is unlikely. He said “throwing out” the beef and replacing it with healthy plant foods would be a good step in itself.

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More information

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics gives advice on building a healthy vegetarian diet.

SOURCES: Jason Hill, PhD, professor, bioproducts and biosystems engineering, University of Minnesota, St. Paul; Gidon Eshel, PhD, research professor, environmental and urban studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online, May 10, 2021

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