A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed that over 16,000 Americans die each year as a result of air pollution caused by meat production and related agricultural practices. About 80% of these deaths are related to producing animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs.
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The study also found that the production of animal-based agricultural products such as ethanol, wool and leather contribute another 1,900 deaths each year. This means there are nearly 18,000 total deaths in relation to animal-based agricultural practices in the U.S. alone.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about how the food we consume impacts our health, but the food we eat impacts other people’s as well,” said Nina Domingo, lead author of the new study.
While there have been similar studies that estimate the number of deaths caused by agriculture-related air pollution, this study is the first to offer detailed results based on specific types of foods. The researchers looked at what it takes to produce each food in terms of fertilizer, land preparations, diesel tractors and waste management, among other factors.
“The long-term effects of climate change are daunting and quite frightening, but this is killing people now, too,” said Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota and senior author. “These are emissions that happen every year, that affect people, that lead to a poor quality of life.”
According to the study findings, corn grown for food, fuel and livestock feed causes 3,700 deaths each year because of emissions. Poor air quality from beef production alone is connected to about 4,000 deaths annually. On the contrary, pollution from conventional vegetable production was found to cause about 100 deaths per year. Based on this data, the authors of the study are proposing individual accountability, such as completely abstaining from meat-based foods or at least switching to flexitarian diets, to save up to 13,100 lives annually. They have also proposed changes in agricultural practices, particularly in waste management and fertilizer use, that could save about 7,900 lives per year.
The report has not been received well by industry groups. The National Cattlemen Beef Association reviewed the findings and dismissed the study. It said that the findings are “based on faulty assumptions and riddled with data gaps.” But the study authors explained that their data comes from peer-reviewed sources and government data from the EPA and USDA.
Image via Andy Crissell