Over the past 50 year, the most notable increases in meat production have been in East Asia and China.
Consuming a lot of red meat can cause adverse health effects like cardiovascular disease. Cattle ranching in major beef producers such as Brazil can also cause harm to the environment.
Yet, millions of people around the world continue to eat more red meat. new studyChina has shown that a shift to more meat can lead to tens or thousands of premature deaths as a result of increased air pollution.
For their research a team of scientists from the University of Exeter and the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Joint Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Resilience examined how dietary patterns in China worsened rates of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air between 1980 and 2010 when meat production ballooned by 433% from 15 megatons to 80 megatons.
“A relatively small proportion was attributed to rising population levels with [much of the increase being] a result of changing diets,” the scientists explain. “In the same time period, agricultural ammonia (NH3) emissions were found to have almost doubled, and [it is] estimated that dietary changes were responsible for 63% of the rise, with the main driver being meat consumption.”
Researchers found that ammonia emissions from local agricultural areas increased by 63% due to changes in dietary composition. This is mainly due to the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers as animal feed. Moreover, particulate matter has increased due to the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for animal feed.
“Increases in meat production across the world over the past 50 years are most stark in East Asia, and particularly China,” the scientists explain in a statement on their findings. “While more meat and less grain in diets is known to be bad for human health, this study is the first to quantify the impact of Chinese dietary changes through changes in agricultural practices that lead to poorer air quality.”
The scientists extrapolate from data and estimate that approximately 5% of the 1.83million deaths in China due to particle matter pollution in 2010 can be attributed to dietary changes, particularly increases in meat consumption. “If Chinese diets were less meat-intensive, it would reduce agricultural ammonia emissions and reduce the harmful effects of air pollution on health for the entire population,” they Write.
In particular, if the average Chinese diet were to be replaced with a less meat-intensive one, ammonia emission would drop significantly and almost 75,000 premature deaths could not occur each year.
“A top priority of China in the 1980s was to satisfy the people’s basic food demand. But now, as the problem of undernourishment has substantially decreased, a more sustainable path for production and consumption of food is urgently needed,” notes Professor Xiaoyu Yan, a professor in sustainable energy systems at the University of Exeter.
“The current trajectory of food choices in China needs to be altered to reduce its effects on both human and environmental health domestically and worldwide,” Yan adds.