29 May 2019

WORLD ENVIRONMENT DAY: AIR POLLUTION CAUSES 7 MILLION DEATHS EVERY YEAR.

• 9 out of 10 people live in areas where air quality levels are below World Health Organization standards

• The main causes of air pollution include transport, agriculture, energy consumption in buildings, industry and electricity production 

• In order to reduce pollution, producers should take action to promote sustainable agriculture and consumers should chose diets with a low environmental impact

• On World Environment Day (5 June), the Barilla Foundation launches its proposal




More than 9 out of 10 people in the world live in areas where air quality levels are below World Health Organization (OMS) standards1. This situation has dramatic consequences, costing many human lives: today, 7 million people die as a result of problems associated with this issue2. The main causes of air pollution in outdoor environments include transport, agricultural activities, energy consumption in buildings, industry and electricity production1. Agricultural production contributes significantly to this situation, since it generates as much as 24%3 of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than industry, 21%, and transport, 14%). Moreover, air pollution also affects the food system and contributes to food insecurity (with a negative impact on the availability of raw materials4). In short, these figures highlight that our planet is literally on fire, as illustrated by the Barilla Foundation on World Environment Day (June 5), which this year will be specifically dedicated to the theme of air pollution. 

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)5 states that there is a two-way relationship between food production and air pollution: food production contributes significantly to air pollution and, in turn, air pollution can impact food production. Agricultural production, processing and distribution generate significant amounts of air pollutants, especially greenhouse gases, NH3 and particulate matter. Agriculture remains the main sector responsible for ammonia pollution and emissions of other nitrogen compounds6. In addition to having a negative impact on the availability of raw materials, air pollution also affects food supply, processing and distribution4.  However, at the same time, the emissions of so-called “ozone precursors” – such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds – undermine global food security, since by penetrating the structure of the plant, they compromise its ability to grow. In fact, it has been estimated that these emissions cause total losses in soy, wheat and corn yields of 6-16%, 7-12% and 3-5% respectively5.

Air pollution is a concern, since it is also closely linked to climate change, which is a threat to global health and to the food chain (as it causes heat waves and air pollution, infectious diseases and malnutrition6), as well as to agriculture, as it reduces the quantity and quality of food supplies7. A number of studies have shown that without effective climate change mitigation measures each increase of one degree Celsius in the average temperature of the planet will reduce the average global yield of wheat, rice, corn and soy by 6%, 3.2%, 7.4% and 3.1% respectively8, and may also lead to a decrease in nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc by 3-17%7 . The possible solutions come from industry itself, by promoting a more sustainable agriculture, but also from consumers, who are called upon to change their dietary habits by adopting sustainable diets, that is diets that are good for both our health and that of our planet,’ explained Anna Ruggerini, Operations Director at the Barilla Foundation. The data analysed shows that food plays a pivotal role and that we need to produce it in a sustainable way, also to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. In order to understand the degree of awareness of SDGs and of the central role of food and how Millennials and “Generation Z” can achieve these goals, the Barilla Foundation asked Ipsos to conduct a study “Young people, SDGs and food” which will be presented on June 5 in Rome at the MIUR (Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, Viale Trastevere 76/A, Sala Aldo Moro, from 9:30 a.m.), as part of the 2019 Sustainable Development Festival. 

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE AND DIETS AGAINST AIR POLLUTION

Agriculture contributes significantly to air pollution: it is estimated that by reducing emissions in agriculture by 50%, more than 200,000 deaths could be prevented every year in Europe, Russia, Turkey, the USA, Canada and China . In the European Union, mortality due to air pollution could be reduced by 18%, generating an annual economic benefit of $89 billion9. This is exactly why we need to focus on sustainable agriculture. 


As for individuals, instead, a simple and healthy solution is to adopt a sustainable diet. The “Double Food and Environmental Pyramid” model, conceived by the Barilla Foundation, allows us to quickly see the food choices that are of key importance for our health and that of the environment. The Food Pyramid is based on Mediterranean diet principles, which suggest eating a wide range of vegetables, fruits, dried fruits, whole grains, a moderate amount of fish and a limited amount of red meat and saturated fats. The Environmental pyramid, instead, reclassifies foods on the basis of their relative environmental impact, thus producing an inverted pyramid, in which the foods most harmful to the environment are precisely those that we should eat in moderation, whereas those that are the healthiest for us actually have the least environmental impact, which therefore demonstrates that foods that are good for our health are also “good” for the health of our planet. 

1 WHO. Air quality and health. https://www.who.int/sustainable-development/Factsheet-AirQuality-190517.pdf.

2 WHO. Air pollution is threatening our health. https://www.who.int/air-pollution/news-and-events/how-air-pollution-is-destroying-our-health.

3 BCFN calculations based on Tukker A., B. Jansen, “Environmental Impacts of Products”, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 10, 3, 2006.

4 Sun, F., Yun, D. A. I., & Yu, X. (2017). Air pollution, food production and food security: A review from the perspective of food system. Journal of integrative agriculture, 16(12), 2945-2962.

5 UNECE. Air pollution and food production. https://www.unece.org/environmental-policy/conventions/envlrtapwelcome/cross-sectoral-linkages/air-pollution-and-food-production.html.

6 Patz, J. A., & Thomson, M. C. (2018). Climate change and health: Moving from theory to practice.

7 The Climate Reality Project. Climate Change and Health: Food Security. https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/climate-change-and-health-food-security.

8 Zhao, C., Liu, B., Piao, S., Wang, X., Lobell, D. B., Huang, Y., ... & Durand, J. L. (2017). Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(35), 9326-9331.

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