Thanksgiving was originally introduced to celebrate the harvest. As we gather around the table this Thanksgiving, we should be thankful to the success of modern agriculture enabling most of the US population to eat a wide variety of delicious dishes. We should also be aware of the agriculture industry’s complex predicament: the role it plays as both victim and contributor of air pollution.
Agriculture has a Massive Impact on Air Quality
Surprisingly, agriculture has a massive impact on air quality as it is one of the largest sources of air pollution. In a recent study, it was confirmed that the fertilizers used today, combined with livestocks, are one of the main culprits in forming particulate matter that pollutes our air and causes severe damage to our health.
A chemical reaction occurs when gases from fertilizer and animal waste combine to form ammonia and mix with other air pollutants, according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Those other air pollutants are “mainly nitrogen oxides and sulfates from vehicles, power plants and industrial processes—to create tiny solid particles, or aerosols, no more than 2.5 micrometers across, about 1/30 the width of a human hair.” These small particles effortlessly penetrate our lungs, resulting in severe lung or heart disease.
The problem stems not from the concept of fertilizer, but from the types being used on most farms. With the rapid growth in artificial fertilizers, ⅓ of them are composed of nitrogen.
Of all the major air polluters, the singularity of the agro industry is that air pollution also has a negative impact on crops, placing agriculture as both the culprit and the victim.
Crops Fall Prey to Air Pollution
Air pollution causes varying degrees of damage to agricultural crops. The type of vegetation, length of exposure, stage of development, and whether or not the plants were pre-treated, all modify the level of damage. Signs of damage include physical markings, reduced growth and premature death to affected crops.
The main air pollutants affecting agriculture:
Sulfur dioxide: Emitted as a result of coal or petroleum burning, some plant species are more vulnerable to this pollutant, such as alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, clover, oats, pumpkin, radish, rhubarb.
Fluoride: Pollutant emanating from the combustion of coal, or the production of brick, glass, ceramics and tile. Affected species include: apricot, barley (young), blueberry, peach (fruit), gladiolus, grape, plum, prune, sweet corn and tulip.
Ammonia & particulate matter: Originating from dust, transportation, storage, or use of ammonia fertilizer, it can affect: apple, barley, beans, clover, radish, raspberry and soybean.
Improving our Agriculture & Air
Farms can take several steps to limit the pollutants they produce, and to protect their harvest from external air pollution that is out their control.
- Shield crops with trees, since they are proven to reduce air pollution
- Implement clean processes that the government has put in place and review types of fertilizers being used
- Cover crops to reduce nutrient loss and protect from air pollution
- Improve manure storage, pay closer attention to the nutritional needs of various livestock, and allow cows to graze in pastures (as opposed to eating grains) are all great ideas from Sustainable Table.
Citizens can help make sure these progressive measures become the norm, by making their voice heard to local and national authorities, and by selectively choosing the food they eat, and the type of farming they support.
On this note, happy thanksgiving to all!