Asian Scientist (Jan. 5, 2022) – Besides the direct impacts of food on health, China’s high meat consumption was found to increase air pollution and consequently drive premature mortality. Less meat-intensive diets could help avoid 75,000 pollution-related deaths each year, reported an international team in Nature Food.
In China, poor air quality has led to over a million deaths each year. While greenhouse gases often take the spotlight in environmental health, it turns out that food production—and meat production, especially—is a major contributor of another type of air pollution called fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
With diameters of less than 2.5 microns, these tiny particles are barely larger than a speck of dust, but they can lead to serious health consequences in large quantities and through frequent exposure. Moreover, the formation of PM2.5 is driven by ammonia gas, emitted by animal waste and fertilizers needed to produce animal feed.
Given that China is also the globe’s top meat consumer, researchers led by Associate Professor Amos P.K. Tai from the Chinese University of Hong Kong quantified the links between dietary patterns and both environmental and human health, showing the indirect yet important health cost of meat consumption.
By integrating several computational models, the team analyzed changes in food consumption and production as well as air quality and associated mortality from 1980 to 2010. The data showed a substantial shift toward plant-based to meat-intensive diets, highlighting meat production grew from 15 megatons to 80 megatons over the three-decade period.
Such high meat consumption led to more than a 60 percent increase in ammonia emissions in the agricultural sector, driving up annual average PM2.5 concentration by 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Strikingly, the results also revealed that meat-heavy diets posed health risks not just to people who consume more meat, but to everyone due to the severe air quality degradation.
However, a nationwide shift to a less meat-intensive diet following the 2016 Chinese Dietary Guidelines could help curb air pollution and related health consequences. Based on the team’s analysis, it could reduce ammonia emissions by 20 percent and particulate matter by six micrograms per cubic meter—potentially preventing 75,000 annual premature deaths.
“Our results underscore the need for a planetary health framework that incorporates sustainable food production and consumption; only then can we simultaneously achieve food security and human and environmental health,” the authors concluded.
The article can be found at: Liu et al. (2021) Dietary shifts can reduce premature deaths related to particulate matter pollution in China.
Source: Chinese University of Hong Kong; Photo: Shutterstock.
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