Clearing the air about pollution caused by animal agriculture

Clearing the air about pollution caused by animal agriculture

Clearing the air about pollution caused by animal agriculture

A “Tales, Tails and Tells” blog by Scott Smith, FoA Communications Director

The Department of Agriculture isn’t doing its job, and thousands of Americans die every year because of its lax oversight of pollution created by animal agriculture.

A major new study by an international team of researchers has calculated, for the first time, that agricultural air pollution kills an estimated 17,900 people in the U.S. every year. Animal agriculture is far and away the worst emitter, responsible for 80 percent of deaths from pollution related to food production. An estimated 12,700 deaths a year can be linked to animal-based food, with beef production alone accounting for 4,000 deaths – most from respiratory and heart problems – caused by air pollution. Published May 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study is the first to identify which individual foods and diets have the biggest effect on the air pollution that causes asthma, heart attacks and strokes.

The horrors of what goes on inside factory farms, livestock feedlots and slaughterhouses are manifest – and well documented. Also well known is the danger that flows downstream; many sectors of Big Ag are profligate users of water, and the waste ponds, drainage ditches and discharges of effluent flowing from farms are laced with all manner of chemicals and biohazards. The agriculture industry is the main source of pollution in rivers and streams in the U.S.

A global review of water pollution from agriculture found that “water pollution from agriculture has direct negative impacts on human health.” Produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the report further stated that “the livestock sector is growing and intensifying faster than crop production in almost all countries. The associated waste, including manure, has serious implications for water quality.”

Worse still, “In the last 20 years, a new class of agricultural pollutants has emerged in the form of veterinary medicines (antibiotics, vaccines and growth promoters [hormones]), which move from farms through water to ecosystems and drinking-water sources. Zoonotic waterborne pathogens [such as E. coli] are another major concern.”

Now you can add air pollution from farms as a known lethal threat to human health. Thanks, Big Ag. And thanks, Dept. of Agriculture, for doing next to nothing about it. As Sarah Kaplan, climate and science reporter for the Washington Post, points out, “Emissions from animal agriculture now account for more annual deaths than pollution from coal power plants. Yet while pollution from power plants, factories and vehicles is restricted under the Clean Air Act, there is less regulation of air quality around farms.”

Says Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based animal-advocacy group: “The cozy relationship between Big Ag and the Department of Agriculture is claiming thousands of lives each year as a result of ineffective controls on water pollution and, we now realize, air pollution caused primarily by animal agriculture.

“It’s also clear to FoA that the way to address the problem is for Congressional oversight to examine the validity of the claims asserted in the PNAS study and, if they’re true, to make necessary reforms,” says Feral. “Our first choice for reform would be to transfer responsibility for agricultural air pollution controls to the Environmental Protection Agency. They are the ones regulating air pollution from other sources, and we think EPA would do a much better job and save innocent lives.”

The quickest solution, however, is to adopt a plant-based diet. As an organization dedicated to freeing animals from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation, Friends of Animals strongly endorses living vegan – as a matter of fairness toward animals, as the best response to a growing ecological crisis, and now, not only for your own health but also the health of other people. That includes the millions who live downwind from a cattle feedlot, hog producer, or poultry farm.

Feeding animals who only exist to be slaughtered is enormously wasteful on a planet where many people lack clean water, breathe polluted air and never get enough to eat. Animal farming emits at least 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (methane) measured in carbon dioxide. Slaughtering 115 million pigs and 33 million cows in the U.S. each year is a significant contributing factor to global warming. “Meat production is also the most resource-intensive form of agriculture,” reports the Post’s Sarah Kaplan. “A whopping 30 percent of Earth’s ice-free land mass is used for pasture for livestock, and red meat requires more water and carbon than any other food. Research suggests that reducing meat consumption could reduce global mortality by 6 to 10 percent — preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.”

Adopting a plant-based lifestyle is essential if we hope to effect positive change, improve the health of both human and nonhuman animals and ensure that our planet has a future. Download a free copy of FoA’s Vegan Starter Guide or order a print copy of the 24-page booklet by visiting this page at