BLOG: Guess what? Farms are now poisoning the air you breathe


In the era we live, with Facebook friends who are experts in vaccines and social media influencers who have done “all the research” on viruses, communicating actual science is not an easy task.

With all the noise on the internet — the jackhammers and buzz saws that drown out reasonable discussion — it’s hard to transmit a clear, fact-based message to the public about any scientific issue.

That’s possibly why some agricultural scientists are raising their voices and making statements that generate extreme headlines.

As a perfect example, today the University of Minnesota released a study claiming that agriculture poisons the air and kills thousands of Americans every year.

“Poor air quality caused by food production in the United States is estimated to result in 16,000 deaths annually, 80 percent of which are related to animal production,” says a University of Minnesota news release.

The release explains that farming increases the amount of tiny particulates in the air. Chronic exposure to those tiny particles can lead to heart disease, cancer and stroke.

“Animal-based foods tend to have higher air quality-related human health damages than plant-based foods because of pollution released from the manure of animals themselves and from fertilizer use and tillage of land when growing the crops — primarily corn, hay and soybeans — that they eat.”

Not surprisingly, the Washington Post and other major outlets picked up the study, amplifying the message that farming and livestock kill thousands of Americans each year.

Another fantastic example of scientific fear-mongering comes from 2018, when University of Oxford scientists said a plant-based diet is the only way to stop climate change.

If we all stopped consuming meat and dairy, global farmland use would be reduced by 75 percent, the researchers claimed.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” Joseph Pore, a University of Oxford researcher, told The Guardian. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

While some scientists are screaming from rooftops, or more likely on Instagram, saying the air is killing us and meat is evil, there are researchers who continue to deliver a more balanced message.

A few scientists at Simon Fraser University are avoiding such doom and gloom prophecies. This month, they published a study on bumblebee populations. They found that, on average, bumblebees are doing OK, although many species of bumblebees are struggling.

That nuanced message is more useful than “all bees will be dead in 20 years,” said Sarah Johnson, a Simon Fraser researcher who specializes in bees.

“If you just say every species (of bumblebee) is declining … (then) we’re already in this space where everything is falling apart, past the point of no return…. It makes people feel there is no point in doing anything.”

If scientists tell people there is a local problem, which is solvable, citizens might act locally to solve that problem, she added.

The big question for agricultural scientists, who believe there are good and bad things about modern farming is how to get their balanced message to the public?

When a portion of the public is yelling about factory farms and fertilizer poisoning the planet, and another group says that everything in agriculture is ethical, sustainable and perfect, it’s difficult to share a middle-of-the-road message.

Is the public willing to hear that organic farming is a mix of good and not so good, like lower yields and constant tillage?

Are farmers willing to hear that they need to protect wildlife habitat by preserving more wetlands, grasslands and bluffs of trees on their land?

As of May 2021, the political middle and balance is pretty much dead in politics.

Hopefully, a thoughtful and balanced message still has a pulse in the world of science and agriculture.