Meat Production, Pollution, and the Human Death Toll

Image of a baby pig placed on a light blue background.

For those that live near factory farms, the overwhelming stench of ammonia is oppressive and ever-present. Many residents report that they are unable to enjoy their outdoor spaces at all, and some must keep windows and doors shut at all times to escape the worst of the smell. The pollution of meat production is everywhere.

The late Elsie Herring—an outspoken environmentalist and founder of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network—described the odor from her neighboring hog farm as “horrific.”

“We can’t stay outside for very long because the odor is so offensive that we start gagging,” she explained, speaking to the House Committee On Energy & Commerce in 2019.

Herring’s powerful testimony helped to further highlight the significant dangers of factory farming to the rural U.S., such as “the pollution from the hog and poultry industries that contaminates our water and our air; the dangers from living on the frontline of climate change; and racism,” she said.

Photo of two plated beef burger meals. How much pollution does meat production really cause?
Meat production is responsible for the vast majority of agriculture-related deaths from pollution.| Geshas/Getty

How much pollution does meat production cause?

New research links fine particulate emissions (also known as PM2.5) from animal agriculture to the deaths of approximately 12,700 people every year. 

A paper titled “Air Quality–Related Health Damages of Food” was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The authors implicate U.S. food production in a total of 15,900 premature deaths every year. Eighty percent of these (12,720) are specifically connected to pollution from meat production and animal agriculture. 

In Herring’s home of Duplin, North Carolina, alone, experts link animal agriculture-related air pollution to approximately 98 premature deaths per year. Hog farming emissions, in particular, are directly related to 89 of these. (As of 2019, Duplin has a population of just 58,967 and approximately 2.3 million pigs—that’s around 39 hogs per human.)

While the scientific community has noted for years that farming creates harmful air pollution, this new study attempts to fully account for all food pollution-related deaths documented each year. The work builds upon a significant body of existing supporting research.

One previous report, published last year in ATS Journals, even links air pollution to health issues in unborn babies. Another study, published in 2015, suggests that agricultural emissions are the largest contributor to PM-related deaths in Japan, Korea, Russia, Turkey, the Eastern US, and throughout the EU.

“Poor air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the United States and worldwide, and agriculture is a major source of air pollution,” say the new paper’s authors. “Nevertheless, air quality has been largely absent from discussions about the health and environmental impacts of food.”

Photo of farmed pigs kept indoors and in close quarters.
Intensive farming methods are huge contributors to regional and national pollution and environmental destruction. | BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

How does factory farming actually cause pollution?

Tilling, in addition to farming equipment with combustion engines, does contribute to overall agriculture-related fine particulate emissions. But the most significant damage is done when ammonia emissions from animal waste and nitrogen-based fertilizer react with other airborne chemicals to create particulate matter. In 2009, 75 percent of all ammonia and nitrogen emissions in the US and Canada came from the farming of animals.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to air pollution,” explained Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor at Compassion in World Farming. “Its emissions, such as ammonia and fine particulate matter, largely result from livestock and fertilizers, a substantial proportion of which are used to grow crops to feed factory-farmed animals.”

Because of their scale, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—also known as factory farms—magnify this impact. They can contain hundreds, thousands, and sometimes millions of live creatures at any one time, and create more than 300 million tons of manure every year. That’s more than three times the amount of annual waste produced by all humans on the planet.

Photograph of a flooded hog lagoon in Burgaw, North Carolina following Hurricane Floyd.
A North Carolina hog lagoon overflows after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. These lagoons poison the air, and during heavy flooding can also poison local waterways. | JOHN ALTHOUSE/AFP via Getty

‘It blows over on us just like it’s raining’

CAFOs typically store this waste in anaerobic sewage lagoons and spread on local crops, releasing pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and nitrogen. This is the devastating phenomenon described by Herring in the Energy & Commerce hearing, despite the fact that she spent her entire life on land that has been in her family for over 100 years.

“The hog operation moved in next door in 1986, and in the mid-nineties, they started spraying animal waste on us approximately 8-12 feet from my Momma’s house,” she explained. “When the spray becomes airborne it blows over on us just like it’s raining.”

These agricultural emissions also combine with other chemicals and cause odors, along with respiratory problems, asthma, heart attacks, and potentially cancer, in workers and local residents alike. (Not to mention those who fall directly into the toxic slurry of sewage lagoons).

One study, published in Science Direct in 2019, revealed that those living within three miles of a CAFO had been 1.8-1.9 times more likely than those living five miles away to report asthma attacks or need asthma medication in the preceding 12 months. For reference, Herring and her family lived less than 0.002 miles from the neighboring hog farm’s spray.

Photo of a woman working in the fields.
Pollution from animal agriculture impacts the whole community, including other farmers. | John P. Kelly/Getty

How does pollution from meat production impact the community?

According to the EPA, there are around 20,000 CAFO facilities across the US alone, pumping out air pollution every day. But many of these are clustered in specific states and regions, which frequently report particularly high numbers of health conditions such as those listed above.

For example, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the Upper Midwest’s Corn Belt are home to a high number of both farms and pollution-related deaths. In North Carolina, the home state of Duplin, there are approximately 48,000 farms, with many hog farming operations located in the eastern part of the state.

It’s no coincidence that asthma rates are also at their highest in this area, with poor and minority communities bearing the brunt of its harmful effects. The factory farming industry disproportionately impacts Black, brown, and low-income communities, regardless of locale.

The consistent and inexcusable impact of factory farming on Americans of color is further evidence of environmental racism in the U.S. and inextricably linked to the environmental justice struggles over landfill placement stretching from today back to the 1970s and beyond.

4 ways air pollution kills

The size of fine particles make them more dangerous

PM2.5, the fine particulate matter specifically addressed by the new report, is so-called because it has a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometers. That’s around three percent of the diameter of a human hair—and several thousand particles could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

Because of its tiny size, fine particulate matter is particularly harmful to humans. It can penetrate deep into the body via the lungs, exacerbating both the symptoms and risk of chronic health conditions. This alone is responsible for millions of deaths worldwide, with fossil fuel-related particulate matter alone implicated in around 18 percent of all global premature fatalities.

Particulate emissions aren’t confined to the local area

Much like microplastics and other pollutants, the devastating impact of particulate emissions is not confined to one locale or region. According to the EPA, increased fine particles in the air can be carried by the wind (densely enough to affect visibility) over long distances.

Furthermore, Our World in Data reports that outdoor and indoor air pollution (of all kinds) combined were responsible for 4.9 million deaths around the world in 2017, making pollution the fourth-highest risk factor after high blood pressure, smoking, and high blood sugar.

Humans aren’t the only ones at risk from fine particulate emissions

Wild animals such as birds can also experience comparable health problems to humans. Domesticated creatures suffer too, and companion animals such as cats and dogs can experience worsened asthma following exposure to fine particulate matter.

PM2.5 also damages land, plants, and trees

As with greenhouse gas emissions (and factory farming in general), particulate matter also indirectly affects human and non-human animals alike via damage to flora and the ecosystem in general.

The particles—which the wind can carry to even highly protected areas—contribute to acid rain, and once settled on ground or water can acidify streams and lakes. Once there, they deplete nutrients in soil and water alike, damage crops and forests, and reduce biodiversity. A 2018 study found that ammonia and nitrogen pollution, primarily from farms, has now harmed over 60 percent of the UK’s land, including important wildlife habitats.

Photo of French protestors fighting an intensive cattle farm in Drucat.
Many locals lobby and protest the creation of new intensive farming operations. | PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP via Getty Images

What can we do about it?

Both consumers and farmers can help to reduce food production’s considerable impact. In Herring’s words, “You have a right to fight injustices.”

Farms themselves can minimize waste, reduce the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and generally favor more sustainable agricultural practices, such as no-till farming and cover crops. And, according to the new study, on-farm interventions alone could reduce PM mortality by up to 50 percent.

Such measures would most likely also lead to other positive outcomes, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, and “undesirable” land-use change.

Consumers can help reduce PM mortality even further. As per the study, nationwide dietary shifts away from animal products could reduce agricultural air quality-related mortality by 68 to 83 percent. For example, simply substituting red meat for poultry could prevent 6,300 deaths per year, while shifting to a vegetarian or fully plant-based diet could prevent up to 13,100.

However, it’s not down to ordinary folks alone to fix pressing environmental issues. The world requires decisive intervention from world governments, NGOs, and corporations to cut pollution for good.

The conflict between capital and livelihoods tied up in harmful, pollution-heavy industries (whether fossil fuels, airlines, or even meat production) complicates decisive national and state action. Regional, national, and world governments can and must do more to tax high-impact activities, subsidize alternatives, and where necessary, roll out pollution permits and complete bans.

To learn more about socially responsible agriculture, check out the advocacy and empowerment project SRAP here, or check out the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network here.