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Anthropogenic causes of air pollution: Agricultural activities

Agriculture was originated thousands of years ago and since then it has been a crucial activity for the humanity’s survival and evolution. Currently, it is defined as the science or practice of farming, including the cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products.

Our modern agriculture is based on finding new ways of getting the perfect product without taking into account how dangerous these activities are to the atmosphere. Two facts have prevailed: price and final result. Many pesticides, insecticides, fumigators and fertilizers are used without restriction, emitting harmful chemicals into the air and making it one of the main air pollution causes.

According to the use of land and resources, agricultural activities can be classified into different types: commercial, subsistence, intensive and extensive. The type of agriculture used in each area depends on the land conditions, the weather and the needs of that population. For example: in the middle of the Amazon basin, it must be subsistence agriculture since the closest village is usually hundreds of kilometers far away.

Moreover, world’s population increases year by year, meaning that every time we need more food, so more and more efficient agricultural and livestock activities are performed, emitting more harmful pollutants to the atmosphere. At the end, it has become one of the major pollution sources in Europe, the United States, Asia and Russia, creating massive impact on live beings, biodiversity and ecosystems.

agriculture pesticides

Animal waste drift

Ammonia, a very powerful pollutant which we will talk later on, is found on animal waste, mainly from livestock excretions. However, animal waste is mainly affecting water pollution and not air pollution, and plenty of regulations have been made to control it since water suitable for human consumption is fewer every year.

Nitrogen compounds from fertilisers

Production of artificial fertilizers has skyrocketed from about 20 million tons in 1950 to more than 200 million tons in 2018, and about a third of them are nitrogen-based. Nitrogen compounds from fertilizers are the real issue here, these gases drift over industrial regions and combined with industry and exhaust fumes from vehicles form fine particulate pollution (mainly PM2.5).

agriculture fertilisers

These solid particles created can stick in the fine lung tissue of children and adults, causing breathing difficulties, impaired lungs, heart function and eventually premature death. In fact, it is estimated these types of pollutants kill almost 3.3 million people worldwide every year.

A study from the Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more than half of the aerosol ingredients in much of the eastern and central United States comes from farming, which is an alarming statistic taking into account that these could easily combine with exhaust fumes in the region.

Ammonia

Ammonia, whose chemical composition is nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3), is a byproduct both of fertilized fields and animal waste, as it can come from the breakdown of livestock excretions.

ammonia

When ammonia is placed into the atmosphere, it often reaches industrial or urban areas, where this gas can find pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulphur compounds, and the combination of both creates PM2.5 pollution particles.

As these particles are invisible to human eyes, they penetrate deeply into our lungs to generate several health problems, especially for vulnerable segments like children or elder people. In the UK it has become a public health emergency, killing more than 40.000 people per year.

Some experts say that controlling the sources of industrial pollution, which are the agents that turn agricultural pollution into its harmful forms, must be a priority. The world is going to need more food, and therefore more fertilizers, so the focus should be on eradicating those compounds that combined with ammonia generate dangerous pollutants.

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