Farming, like most industrial activities, generates byproducts from its operations. Those can generate headlines. It can be difficult to determine which byproducts and which headlines are important for the sector to address.
A recently released study, the first of its kind, has generated headlines across North America about American livestock operations located in highly populated areas. The threats to human health from these activities are real and so are the threats to agriculture from the headlines these generate.
Air pollution from agriculture is linked to as many as 17,000 deaths in the United States annually, according to research published by the American National Academy of Sciences.
The study shows that animal agriculture is the worst agricultural emitter and 80 percent of deaths from pollution related to food production come from this area of the industry.
Gases related to manure and to fertilizer for growing livestock feed, along with particulate matter, can drift on the wind into densely populated urban areas where their damage is magnified.
Even more dangerous to human health are effects from tiny dust and ash particles, the study said. Less than 2.5 microns in width, particles in this form of pollution can enter the lungs and the bloodstream, where they contribute to cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Researchers said these emissions now account for more annual deaths each year than polluting byproducts from coal power plants because the latter emissions are monitored and regulated by governments. There are few regulations on air quality effects from farming in most jurisdictions.
Most of the deaths identified in the research occurred in the livestock-heavy areas of California’s Central Valley, eastern North Carolina and in the upper Midwest. The tiny pollutants at fault are generated by field burning, tillage and livestock in dusty, outdoor feeding operations.
The study associates these with about 4,800 premature deaths in the United States annually. Worse, ammonia that is lost to the atmosphere from farming activities is reacting with sulfur and nitrogen, creating other particles that do even more damage to people downwind of farms.
According to the study, ammonia from livestock production is responsible for 12,400 American deaths per year. Grain production’s ammonia byproducts and losses resulted in about 1,400 deaths annually. All told plant-based foods for human consumption were charged with being responsible for 3,200 deaths from pollution.
Relatively small threats were found from farm machinery emissions.
The U.S. livestock industry has initially been critical of the report’s findings, suggesting it used out-of-date modelling that did not reflect recent improvements in production methods, including the reduced tillage that western Canadian farmers have been employing for years.
Overall, the research that generated headlines could also generate public demands for regulation. Now governments will likely call for additional research, and farm groups and the food industry will push back against any new limits that result.
Canadian producers, especially in the West, need to remain aware of related happenings south of the border because those opinions tend to creep north regardless of validity.
The new study showed few threats in the less populated regions of the U.S., and by extension, in Western Canada.
But with opinion, as with pollution, there is always a risk of drift.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.