You may not think about it much, but it takes a lot of energy to raise livestock that produces some of your favorite foods, including eggs and cheese. In fact, it even disrupts air quality which poses a threat to the environment and human health.
According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, poor air quality caused by food production in the U.S. causes an estimated 16,000 deaths annually, and about 80% of these deaths are believed to be caused by the production of animal-based foods. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now)
Agriculture is a huge contributor to air pollution, which is the largest environmental risk factor for mortality globally. This study was the first of its kind to detail which foods are most dramatically contributing to the decline of air quality in the U.S. and as a result, costing people their lives.
The authors of the study estimated how much agriculture elevated levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is known to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and even stroke in those who are routinely exposed. Certain farming activities including plowing land, fertilizing crops, as well as storing and spreading manure all release pollution into the air that increases PM2.5 levels. However, the production of animal-based foods tends to have a more significant impact on air-quality related human health issues than vegetables and legumes.
When animals eat corn, hay, and soybeans, their manure (which is then used as a fertilizer for crops) releases large amounts of ammonia into the air, which can then react with other pollutants in the air to form PM2.5. This is especially the case for cultivating the correct breeding grounds for cattle, aka beef.
This study, in particular, found that the average air quality-related harm that producing red meat imposes on human health is two times greater than that of eggs, three times greater than those of dairy products, and seven times greater than those of poultry.
Even more telling? The air quality-related damage red meat has on human health was 10 greater than those of nuts and seeds and a whopping 15 times greater than the average of various other plant-based foods.
"Air quality-related mortality from the U.S. food system is comparable to that of other sources of air pollution, such as motor vehicles and electricity production. Nevertheless, food-related emissions are lightly regulated and less studied compared to these other sectors," Jason Hill, professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota said in a statement.
While this information seems bleak, there are several possible solutions. As Hill mentions, air quality can be improved at the farming level by improving fertilizer and manure management. In addition, the more people who shift to eating a predominantly plant-based diet can also considerably help to reduce air pollution.
For ideas on how to include more plant-based protein into your diet, be sure to check out 11 Best Healthy Plant-Based Snack Ideas.