Animal Agriculture Is a Major Source of Air Pollution

We talk about meat's carbon footprint, but what about its impact on air quality?

cattle feedlot from above
Aerial view of a large beef cattle feed lot in Texas.

Bim / Getty Images

Think about air pollution, and images of stalled traffic in a cloud of fumes and wildfires belching out dark smoke will likely come to mind. But there are many other, less noticeable forms of air pollution that deserve our attention. One of these is agriculture.

Agriculture, particularly the kind that raises animals for human consumption, tends to be known as an emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that's thirty times stronger than carbon dioxide. But it's also an aggressive degrader of air quality, as explained in an article from The Breakthrough Institute

The Institute states that agriculture is responsible for roughly half of U.S. air pollution (human-caused fine particulate matter) and that the primary source within the agricultural sector is ammonia generated by livestock and fertilizer (which comes from animal waste) – not heavy machinery, as some might think.

"The ammonia reacts with pollutants from vehicles, power plants, and other sources to form fine particulate matter, affecting not just rural farmland, but also blowing into populous cities further away. 
Livestock manure generates the lion’s share of ammonia from agriculture as well as a variety of other harmful pollutants — which is why meat, dairy, and other livestock production together make up one of the top five sources of air pollution deaths, with an impact larger than the exhaust from trucking."

The Sierra Club reports that, while concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are required to disclose information about ammonia emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate air pollution from CAFOs. The disclosure rule has revealed that the single biggest emitter of ammonia in the country is a dairy farm in Oregon.

A 2019 report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council puts the amounts into perspective, explaining that "an average broiler facility raising 90,000 birds at a time may release more than 15 tons of ammonia a year, causing respiratory problems and chronic lung disease as well as chemical burns to the respiratory tract, skin, and eyes of nearby residents."

It's not just ammonia that's a problem; other harmful gases like hydrogen sulfide have been linked to neurological problems, including mood instability, depression, and illness, as well as increased levels of asthma in children living in the vicinity.

What's the Solution? 

The way farmers raise animals and tend land can affect air quality. Using deep covered pits instead of anaerobic lagoons to store a manure slurry could prevent much of it from blowing away. Tweaking feed formulas, using the minimal amount of fertilizer required on a field, and employing more rotational crops could all contribute to improving air quality.

And it wouldn't be Treehugger if we didn't add "reducing meat consumption" to that list. When we buy cheap meat at the grocery store, we're driving demand for industrialized meat production, which is behind much of this air pollution. By eating less meat (or giving it up completely), fewer animals need to be bred, raised, and slaughtered, which means less manure.

Buying higher-quality meat from producers whose farming methods are more attuned with nature (i.e. rotational grazing in areas that can benefit from the manure and spur on reforestation; see the documentary film "Kiss the Ground" for more information) should be a priority for those who can afford to do so. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Methane Management: The Challenge." United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

  2. "Bauer, Susanne E., et al. "Significant Atmosphere Aerosol Pollution Caused by World Food Cultivation." Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 43, no. 10, 2016, pp. 5394-5400. doi:10.1002/2016GL068354

  3. "Why Are CAFOs Bad?" Sierra Club.

  4. Miller, D. Lee and Muren, Gregory. "CAFOs: What We Don't Know is Hurting Us." Natural Resources Defense Council.

  5. "Toxicological Profile for Hydrogen Sulfide and Carbonyl Sulfide." U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.