Home » Pollution » Agricultural Emissions: How It Poses Risk To Health And Environment?
Agriculture is an essential component of our global food system, providing sustenance to billions of people around the world. However, the environmental impact of modern agricultural practices is increasingly coming under scrutiny. In particular, agricultural emissions have become a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, driving climate change and posing risks to human health and the environment.
Agricultural emissions refer to the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere due to agricultural practices. The most common GHGs emitted by agriculture are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), which are released during activities such as fertilization, livestock production, and land use changes.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agriculture accounts for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a significant contributor to climate change. In addition to their impact on the environment, agricultural emissions can also have adverse effects on human health, such as contributing to respiratory diseases and exacerbating allergies. Reducing agricultural emissions has therefore become an important area of focus in the quest to mitigate the effects of climate change and protect public health.
In this article, we will be exploring the ways in which they impact our planet and our health, as well as discussing potential solutions to mitigate these risks.
Table of Contents
How Does Agriculture Contribute To Climate Change?
Our health and well-being depend on a healthy diet. Every human needs food. Our food needs and taste for different flavors have caused the development of a complex and increasingly globalized production and delivery system. Today, you can walk into a restaurant and order fish from the Atlantic served alongside rice from India.
Someone produces, stores, processes, packages, and transports our food before it reaches our plates. Every stage releases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Farming releases enormous amounts of two potent greenhouse gases, methane, and nitrous oxide. Livestock produces methane during digestion via enteric fermentation. They release methane through belches. Organic waste in landfills and stored manure also releases methane. Most chemical fertilizers used in farming release nitrous oxide emissions, another greenhouse gas. Agriculture’s emissions pose risks to health and the environment.
Global emissions from crop production and livestock grew by 14% between the years 2001 and 2011. The rise in emissions was due to developing countries increasing their agricultural output. The increased agricultural production was in response to increased global food demand. Rising incomes in developing countries caused a change in food consumption patterns. This was another factor that fuelled the rise in agricultural production.
During that same period, emissions from livestock via enteric fermentation increased by 11%. Livestock emissions accounted for 39% of the agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2011.
Agriculture is the single largest source globally of anthropogenic methane emissions. Agricultural domesticated livestock releases significant quantities of methane through their natural digestive processes. Methane emissions from domestic livestock account for around 37% of global methane emissions.
Further reducing greenhouse gas emissions is quite challenging, given how important food is in our lives. Even so, there is quite some potential in reducing emissions related to food production and consumption. Integrating innovative agricultural techniques into production methods, capturing methane from manure, efficiently using fertilizers, and encouraging the reduction of emissions per unit of food produced in dairy and meat production can go a long way in reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Meat and dairy products have the highest carbon footprints among all food items. Every year, livestock and producing the fodder required to feed them generates more than 3 billion tons of carbon emissions. Transporting and processing them release further emissions, contributing to how much of agriculture’s emissions pose risks to health and the environment.
Agriculture And Global Warming
Experts have projected that, in the coming decades, global food demand will increase by 70%. They have also noted that dietary habits are changing in favor of higher meat consumption. Agriculture already has a high environmental impact. The increased food demand will create additional pressure on agricultural sectors to produce more food, increasing its environmental impact. How can we meet this increase in global food demand while simultaneously reducing the environmental effects of food production and consumption?
We cannot decrease the production of food; it is not a viable solution. Reducing food production can jeopardize food security and increase food prices globally. It would be hard for people around the world to access nutritious and affordable food.
We also cannot create pressure on land already used for agriculture to produce more food because agriculture’s emissions pose risks to health and the environment. It would require heavy use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. These fertilizers release nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change and global warming. Intensive use of fertilizers in agriculture can also release nitrates into the soil and surrounding water bodies. A high concentration of nitrates causes eutrophication in water bodies. Eutrophication depletes oxygen in the water while promoting algae growth. This severely affects aquatic life.
Nitrous oxide has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately 120 years. Over a 100-year period, nitrous oxide traps heat 310 times more effective in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The microbial processes of nitrification naturally produce nitrous oxides in soil. But the use of synthetic and organic fertilizers and growing nitrogen-fixing crops enhances the soil’s nitrous oxide emissions.
Anywhere in the world, using more land to meet growing food demands would have disastrous effects on the environment and climate. We are already cultivating suitable agricultural areas to a large extent. Fertile agricultural land is a very limited resource worldwide.
We cannot even convert forest areas into agricultural land. The process would involve clearing forest land. Forests are enormous carbon sinks. Clearing them would lead to large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation also increases the risk of losing critical biodiversity. Biodiversity loss will increase nature’s inability to cope with the impacts of climate change. Clearing land for crop production is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.
Health Effects of Agricultural Emissions
Agricultural emissions in the US alone are the cause of 17,900 deaths every year. Exposure to agricultural emissions causes various health effects on agricultural workers, farm owners, the general public, and the environment. Below we outline some of them.
1. Farmworkers get directly exposed to pesticides during fieldwork. Exposure to pesticides has a range of short-term and long-term health effects. They include respiratory illnesses, birth defects, neurological disorders, and an increased risk for certain cancers. It can also cause disorders of the immune and reproductive systems. The children of farmworkers can also suffer from pesticide exposure. Farmworkers can carry home residues of pesticides on their shoes and clothing. Prenatal pesticide exposure can cause decreased mental development and increase the risk of attention deficit disorder.
2. Pathogen exposure and respiratory risks are challenges that workers in livestock agriculture face. They are exposed daily to dust, bacteria, and manure, often in confined spaces. Workers handling cattle are at risk of developing tuberculosis associated with bovine tuberculosis.
3. Runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture can contaminate water sources. Human consumption of such water can be fatal.
4. Animal waste, manure, is commonly used as a fertilizer in agriculture. The waste can contribute to the spread of antimicrobial-resistant diseases. It also combines with pollutants to lower air quality. This combination can cause pulmonary and heart diseases.
5. Pesticide drift can result in pesticide droplets and dust settling on and affecting nearby homes and schools. Pesticide drift is the airborne application of pesticides to farmland.
6. Large-scale farmers commonly use antibiotics to ensure good crop yields. When humans consume such food, it compromises drug effectiveness.
What Can You Do To Reduce Agricultural Emissions?
1. Manure and livestock management
If you’re a livestock farmer, try practicing rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is when farmers divide a pasture into smaller zones. They allow livestock to graze in one zone for a period of time and then move them to the next. This allows the recently grazed area to rest and recover its vegetation. The recovery of herbage and foliage sequesters carbon in the soil. Also, cover manure storage facilities to reduce the escape of methane.
2. We need to change how we farm
Farmers need to increase the organic content of their soil. Increasing organic content improves fertility and water-holding capacity and increases the soil’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide.
Farmers who cultivate the soil release all the carbon dioxide it sequestered until cultivation. Therefore, farmers need to employ harvesting practices that cause a minor disturbance to the earth. They also need to move toward a no-tillage system. Not tilling the soil helps it to sequester carbon dioxide.
3. Role as an individual and a consumer
You can support reductions in agricultural emissions by demanding organic, fresh, and local food. Farmers and farming industries will notice when you increase the demand for such foods. Your demand will help decrease emissions from the agricultural sector. Reduce your consumption of food that producers need to transport over long distances.
Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.