Particulate pollution and industrial agriculture

Particulate pollution is a significant environmental issue, driving a host of problems. For human and animal health, it carries the threat of inhaling dangerous compounds that can cause a range of health issues like carrying carcinogens and obstructing airways. Plants and trees aren’t big fans either. Particulates can gather in the atmosphere and contribute to acid rain, global warming, reduction in sunlight, and other issues. They’re bad news bears, which is one reason that we’re collectively trying to cut down on the number of particulates we generate.

When people think about particulates, they usually think vehicle emissions and factories. And it’s true that both of these produce large amounts of aerosols. But guess what else does? Farming. Fertilizers and other industrial chemicals are already suspects in nutrient pollution and other environmental issues, but in combination with combustion from farm vehicles and equipment, they generate a sizable amount of particulate pollution — over 50 percent of that in the Midwest, for example.

This problem presents yet another reason to reform agricultural practices in the best interests of the environment. It can be hard to push through huge changes in the way we do things, especially when we’re talking about practices that have been embraced for decades, but the difficulty of something shouldn’t be used an excuse for not doing it. We already know that over reliance on agricultural chemicals is a huge problem worldwide, and that the major culprit is industrial, large-scale agriculture, where such chemicals enable large crop yields and facilitate practices like planting crops too closely together and poor soil management. They’re used not just in the generation of food crops for humans, but also feedstock for animals and commercial products like fuels. And we’re using more of them from year to year.

Agricultural chemicals pose a huge problem for the natural environment. Fertilizers contribute to nutrient pollution, which chokes out waterways and eventually enters the ocean, allowing some species to thrive while killing others off, creating massive dead zones. Ironically, large amounts of nutrients actually cut down on biodiversity and make aquatic habitats less healthy. They also enter groundwater and aquifers, causing problems with contamination of the water supply, and they’re joined by pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other agricultural chemicals used to prevent crop loss.

Many of these chemicals also pose environmental and human health risks, a particular issue for farmworkers, who are supposed to be provided with training and protection so they can use them safely, but often aren’t. In a workforce that’s primarily comprised of undocumented migrants who don’t have access to advocacy tools they can use to promote workplace welfare, health problems as a result of overwork, inadequate health care, limited access to shade and freshwater, and exposure to agricultural chemicals are an ongoing issue. The public often seems indifferent to these problems, but it shouldn’t be: Worker welfare matters, and the health of the people picking our crops and raising our livestock should concern us.

It also affects surrounding communities. Agricultural regions have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases, illustrating how particulates move through the regions where they’re applied and generated. This kind of aerosol pollution knows no boundaries of region and species, affecting humans and wildlife across borders. It may be applied to a crop to encourage it to grow more quickly and produce more, but it’s going to have far-reaching consequences.

Cutting down on farming pollution should be a simple matter. We should be able to evaluate current farming practices and come up with refreshed best practices recommendations that balance environmental health, the need to feed the population, and the desire to avoid financial damages. In the long term, these destructive approaches to farming do tremendous harm to farms themselves, something the industry skips over in its haste to make profits. Along with those best practices, we need a robust set of new regulations and an actual budget for enforcement, to push large farms into compliance instead of gently suggesting that maybe they want to change the way they do business.

In negotiations about climate change, pollution, and taking environmental responsibility, many people think about issues like pushing manufacturers to improve their production lines. Farming, however, doesn’t come up as often as it should, and the environment suffers as a result. People often think of farming regions as being filled with fresh, wholesome air and a cheerful, happy environment, but that’s not actually the case on an industrial scale. It’s time to change these conditions, to address the fact that farming can be tremendously damaging when it’s not done thoughtfully.

There’s no reason for farming to make people sick. There’s no reason for farming to damage the surrounding environment, posing a threat to the health of plants, wildlife, habitat, and the long-term survival of the planet. There’s no reason for farmers to be using destructive practices in the push for profits above all else. Reforming that requires changing a lot of things, with the actual way we farm being only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a start. We need to stop incentivising and excusing activities that harm the planet, and as we crack down on vehicle and factory emissions, we ought to be casting our eyes to those amber waves of grain, too.

Image: Crop Dusting Plane, Mike Boswell, Flickr