Increases in meat production across the world over the past 50 years are most stark in East Asia, and particularly China.
Meat-heavy diets in China pose both health and environmental risks
Eating plenty of red meat can lead to adverse health effects such as cardiovascular disease and cattle ranching in major beef producers like Brazil causes plenty of harm to the environment.
And yet millions worldwide are consuming more and more red meat and as one new study from China indicates a dietary switch to more meat can cause tens of thousands of premature deaths from increased air pollution alone.
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.”
The researchers found that changes in dietary composition alone increased ammonia emissions from local agriculture by 63% owing to the extensive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers for animal feed. Meanwhile, increases in livestock manure have also meant that particulate matter air pollution has grown through chemical processes in tandem with higher rates of PM2.5 generated by agriculture.
“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.”
Extrapolating from data, the scientists estimate that around 5% of the 1.83 million Chinese deaths related to particle matter pollution in 2010 could be attributable to dietary changes, especially increases in the demand for meat. “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.
Specifically, if the average Chinese diet today was replaced by a less meat-intensive one, ammonia emissions would decrease significantly and nearly 75,000 premature deaths could be avoided 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.