Dietary Choices Affect Air Quality

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By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

Did you know that around 100,000 people in the United States
die prematurely each year due to air pollution resulting from human activities
(like driving)? And that about 20,000 of those deaths are linked to
agriculture? I had no idea of this issue until I read a recently published
study conducted by scientists from the United States and the United Kingdom.

This study attributed 15,900 deaths per year in the United
States to air pollution related to food production and estimates that 80% of
these deaths are related to animal-based food production. There are numerous
ways that food production contributes to air pollution. For example, livestock
waste (urine and feces) and fertilizer applications result in ammonia
production. Ammonia is estimated to be associated with 69% of deaths related to
air quality from food production. Particulate matter from dust from tillage,
dust kicked up by livestock hooves, field burning, and emissions from
agricultural equipment is estimated to be associated with 27% of food
production air quality-related deaths.

Red meat production has the greatest impact on health damage
related to air quality. The health effect of red meat production on air quality
is estimated to be 10 times higher than that of nut and seed production and 15
times more than that of the production of other plant foods. Production of
eggs, poultry, and dairy products all have a greater impact on deaths
attributed to food production air quality than does production of plant foods.

The researchers developed mathematical models to predict the
effect of dietary changes in the United States on deaths due to
agricultural-related air quality. Substituting poultry for red meat would
potentially result in a 40% decrease in deaths, shifting to a vegetarian diet
would potentially decrease deaths attributed to air pollution related to food
production by 76%, and a shift to a vegan diet would potentially decrease
deaths by 83%. Thus, a national shift to a vegan diet could prevent more than
13,000 deaths per year from food production-related air pollution alone. That’s
not to mention other environmental and health benefits.


Domingo NGG, Balasubramanian S, Thakrar SK, et al. Air quality-related health damages of food. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021;118(20):e2013637118.