In the USA, Farms Now Cause More Air Pollution Than Coal and Natural Gas for Electricity

The quality of the air in the United States has improved substantially. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford have found that, US-economy-wide, gross external damage (GED) due to premature mortality has decreased by more than 20% from 2008 to 2014. The paper is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Damages from air pollution from farms are now larger than those from utilities in the USA. Indeed, farms have become the largest contributor to air pollution damages from PM2.5-related emissions.

The risks, however, remain high for several populations, and there is still much to learn about the sources and impacts of air pollution. Researchers calculated the ratio between the gross external damage (GED) created by industrial emissions and the value added (VA) of the same industry’s output to the economy. An important caveat is that GED in this context captures damages to the economy caused by air quality alone. It does not account for other types of pollution that could impact the economy (e.g., water pollution). Similarly, GED does not capture impacts to ecosystems services losses created by air pollution. Thus, GED should be interpreted as a lower bound on impacts of industrial activity on well-being. As a concept, the GED/VA ratio provides relevant information required for the design of efficient environmental and industrial policies. Industries with a GED/VA ratio less than 1 produce more VA to the economy than the damages they inflict and are thus positive net contributors to the economy.

From 2008 to 2014, damage to the economy caused by air pollution have fallen, but not all sectors of the economy have contributed equally to this process.

PNAS – Fine particulate matter damages and value added in the US economy

29 thoughts on “In the USA, Farms Now Cause More Air Pollution Than Coal and Natural Gas for Electricity”

  1. 7,585 million tons of coal burned in 2017, and it is still increasing. India and Indonesia are increasing use dramatically.
    21x the mass of every human on Earth each year. Or basically 1 ton of coal per person on the planet.

  2. I think the PM2.5 is diesel exhaust from farm equipment rather than dust. They don’t really have emissions controls on farm equipment. Generators, tractors, pumps and more are diesel powered.
    We need a program to move to electric equipment and probably solar power on site. I suspect a lot of that ammonia is coming from cows and pigs.
    Though I can’t see the artile, so your guess is as good as mine.

  3. I read this PNAS article. The authors do take pains to not read into this as agriculture is bad for the environment, but that OTHER pollution has been reduced. The point is, that farming uses ammonia (NH3) which then combines with very small microscopic particles from plants + NOx + SO2 to form the PM25 and pollution. Ammonia per se is of course essential for life. Too much, especially locally, is bad too. BUT – naturally occurring ammonia far exceeds the stuff we make for farming etc.

    The other “not reading into” point is that the GDP value of agri (used for their GED value calculation) is merely a number of dollar output value. GDP is notoriously bad at figuring out if 1 gallon of milk is “better” than spending 10 minutes digging a hole in the ground and then refilling it. Agri as an industry is only about 5% of total U.S. GDP, but I would argue that food is kinda valuable. Gasoline sales in the U.S. is about 2.5% of the GDP but also pretty important.

    from the article:
    “Second, we urge caution when interpreting GED/VA ratios larger than unity. We certainly do not advocate for closing industries in such cases. Rather, this is an indication, within the context of macroeconomic aggregate statistics, that damages are likely inefficiently high. In such cases, regulators should consider making sensible changes to emission controls at the margin.”

  4. NH3 from ammonia , combines with volatile organic compounds (VOC) + NOx + SO2 to form PM25. So what are VOC’s? Basically, very small microscopic parts of leaves from plants called isoprenoids (which are essential to life). Given agriculture with a big “A” is almost everything green (forests, farming, grazing pastures), then “farming” is a contributor to PM25. But that isn’t bad.

  5. Total mass of cows in the world about 650 million tonnes

    Total mass of humans in the world about 350 million tonnes

    Total mass of  Antarctic krill about 380 million tonnes

    Termites are also about 300 million tonnes.

  6. I’ll give them an OK on this. China produces the most air pollution (because it has the most industry). But for an American this doesn’t matter. What matters to Bobbie-Sue jr. living in Covet-thy-sister, Arkansas is the pollution that SHE experiences, and that isn’t from China, it’s from nearby.

    If you want to talk about CO2, then sure, that’s a global thing, it is distributed globally and any effects if might have are global. But particulates and so forth are local.

  7. Farm subsidies are maintained because it’s the only way to get support for food stamps for the poor. If the subsidies are dropped, the quid pro quo bargain is null and void.

  8. A man of conscience, willing to endure local pollution harming his health until china stops egregiously killing off it’s own people with abominable levels of pollution in their cities.

  9. Similarly I’d bet that the 20% of the farming that is done nearest high population areas causes 80% of the impact.

  10. This is all about particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, it’s not the stuff you can see blowing around.

    …4 sectors, comprising less than 20% of the national gross domestic product (GDP), are responsible for ∼75% of GED attributable to economic activities…

    80/20 rule at work
    It’s not Ammonia directly and it’s not mentioned in the paper, but it can play an indirect role in the formation of fine particulate matter
    doi: 10.1002/2013JD020765

  11. So, it’s virtually all due to ammonia and dust? I guess I can kind of understand that, ammonia is used for fertilizer, and plowing a field does raise dust.

    But it still seems a bit strange, because the dust is raised in areas that have fairly low population density, and so doesn’t impact many people. Heck, it doesn’t much impact people in the country, as I can confirm, having grown up there. Except for that one time we had a windstorm after the muck fields were plowed, and everything got dirty.

    It’s hard to evaluate this, when it’s paywalled. Ammonia IS toxic at high levels, but it’s a natural and necessary part of the environment at low levels. This there some kind of LNT assumption being used here?

  12. Intellectuals aren’t the problem, the real problem is poor reading comprehension and a lack of critical thinking skills. I blame poor standards in schools and social media promoting ignorance & stupidity as a noble virtue.

    Hint: substantial improvement != problem uniformly resolved.

  13. People working full time on minimum wage with families qualify for food stamps so it isn’t lazy ppl. And feeding a family is a lot cheaper than Emergency Room treatment for people suffering from the affects of bad nutrient.

  14. The output of the USA’s farms contributed $132.8 billion to GDP, although that is part of a 1 trillion total ecosystem.

    So their negative impact on the air alone now exceeds their gross value.

  15. I don’t think that is what is being touted. Other industrial pollution has decreased to the point farming has the lead.
    All in all a very good thing.

  16. there 3 times more humans than cows…therefore humans are the number source of biological waste and pollution

  17. The federal government spends a lot of money on Farm Subsidy and a major portion of our farm output is exported. Some people don’t like the fact that a significant portion of our population get food stamps but they seem to have no problem subsidies food for the rest of the world.

  18. “The quality of the air in the United States has improved substantially.”

    And yet, somehow farms are still a problem.

    I’m guessing because they get in the way of the promotion of eating insects over beef.

    I’m starting to understand why the Chinese killed all the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. It was just too much trouble trying to sort out the ones worth keeping.

  19. When I lived out in the County – my neighbor had 5 large hog sheds and raised about 5000 at a time. When the wind blew our direction, it could make your eyes water. But, he did give us some wonderful pork sausage.

  20. Vertical farming cities, please. Mega farming cities would be so great. Unless, of course, <see plot of Judge Dredd>. Seriously, though, I think that’s the way to go.

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