Community health risks of industrial agriculture

Herbicide by Kevin Wood

Community health risks of industrial agriculture


  • The prevailing agricultural system has vast health and environmental impacts. 
  • This brief gives an overview of industrial-scale, conventional agriculture practices and associated health risks, for both agricultural workers and the wider community. 
  • It also suggests ways in which hospitals can consider these risks as part of their community health needs assessment process and act to support healthy, sustainable food systems.

Agricultural practices have significant health implications. Common practices and production inputs, used to maximize yields, negatively impact human health and environmental conditions. 

  • Farmworkers and owners face a myriad of health risks, including chronic and acute exposure to pesticides, high risk of injury, and limited access to health care.
  • Routine antibiotic use in animal agriculture contributes to antibiotic resistance, diminishing the effectiveness of these drugs for human use.
  • Agricultural contaminants, including pesticides, nitrates, and phosphorus, impact ground and surface water quality, affecting both urban and rural communities.
  • Synthetic fertilizers deplete soil health and require intensive use of fossil fuels to produce.
  • Emissions and pollution resulting from all stages of agriculture, from production (pesticide drift and methane) to distribution (carbon dioxide) affect air quality and contribute to climate change.

While rural communities and farm owners and workers face the most immediate risks from these practices, the overall impact is far-reaching. Air and water pollution from agriculture affects communities over vast areas (rural and urban), and the impacts of antimicrobial resistance and climate change transcend geography.

Agricultural practices and environmental health risks

Large-scale, conventional farming focuses on intensive single crop production, mechanization, and depends on fossil fuels, pesticides, antibiotics, and synthetic fertilizers. While this system yields high production levels, it also contributes to climate change, pollutes air and water, and depletes soil fertility. The policies and practices underlying this system contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease in the United States, and the health impacts of this system extend well-beyond diet. For instance, agriculture is a significant source of air pollution, which contributes to a range of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. The industrial-scale, conventional system endangers farm workers and owners, who regularly face serious occupational hazards and limited access to health care.

“In fact, our industrialized food and agriculture system comes with steep costs, many of which are picked up by taxpayers, rural communities, farmers themselves, other business sectors, and future generations. When we include these “externalities” in our reckoning, we can see that this system is not a cost-effective, healthful, or sustainable way to produce the food we need."

— Union of Concerned Scientists
Edited image from the US National Archives of farm workers carrying shovels at the end of their work day in Colorado.
Farmworkers carrying shovels at the end of their work day in Colorado (Staurt Rankin/Flickr).

Industrial agricultural inputs and risks


  • Nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture, predominantly due to runoff, contaminate water sources, harming aquatic ecosystems and making water unfit for human consumption and exposure. 
  • Animal waste, used as fertilizer, can contribute to the spread of antimicrobial resistance and overuse can lead to nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater sources.
  • Ammonia released from the use of fertilizers and manure impacts air quality by combining with pollutants to form aerosols that can cause heart and pulmonary diseases.


  • Pesticide drift, which can occur during application and afterward carried by vaper, results in airborne dust and droplets that settle outside of the area targeted for use, increasing the range of exposure, and affecting nearby fields, homes, and schools. 
  • Through runoff and leaching agricultural pesticides contaminate ground and surface water.
  • Pesticide exposure is associated with increased risk of certain cancers and disorders of the nervous, endocrine, immune, and reproductive systems. Children's risks are further elevated due to their size and ongoing developmental processes. 


  • Large-scale use of antibiotics in agriculture (for non-therapeutic purposes) compromises drug effectiveness in humans.
  • Antimicrobial resistant bacteria can move from farms to humans through food and airborne dust. These bacteria have also been found in raw and treated drinking water sources, although the presence cannot be directly attributed to agriculture. 
Cows in feed lot by Kent Kanouse
Cows in a feedlot in Colorado (Kent Kanouse/Flickr)

Public health impacts of agricultural practices

Water pollution

Water pollution resulting from conventional agricultural practices is wide-reaching, affecting both surface and groundwater sources, in agricultural communities and those located downstream. Local water systems, which may be public or privately operated, are required to monitor and report on water quality to their states, which, in turn, report to the Environmental Protection Agency. Across the country, water systems, especially smaller ones, face staffing, technical, and funding challenges that interfere with their work to monitor and safeguard water quality. Water quality standards for agriculture-related pollution levels include microbial pathogens, nutrient pollution, and pesticides

While the public water sources are monitored regularly for certain pollutants, (including some, but not all pesticides), private wells, which are common in rural areas, are not. 

Despite regulation and monitoring, water quality issues persist. The United States Geological Survey has found high nitrates levels in shallow monitoring wells in both agricultural and urban areas, and a 2015 report found significant water violations in the United States, for both health safety standards and monitoring practices. The impacts of such contamination can be extensive. 

In 2014, an algae bloom in Lake Erie, attributed in large part to agriculture, rendered drinking water for Toledo residents unusable for several days. In Iowa, Des Moines Water Works is undertaking an effort to increase the size of its nitrate removal facility, which can currently treat ten million gallons of water daily, to ensure it can meet water quality standards and demand. The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes nitrates as a significant health risk because they inhibit oxygen transport in the blood. Exposure is particularly harmful to children because it is associated with developmental disorders and blue baby syndrome. Treating drinking water for nitrate contamination may result in increased costs for municipalities (and also for residents), particularly if treatment requires undertaking new processes. Reducing excessive fertilizer use and using proper application and storage practices are integral to addressing water contamination.

Air pollution

Agriculture is a significant source of air pollution. Nitrogen fertilizers and use of animal waste release ammonia. When airborne, ammonia combines with combustion emissions (from vehicles and industry) to form particulate matter. Agriculture is the major source of fine-particulate matter pollution in many areas of the United States. Particulate matter (dust, dirt, soot, smoke) can be coarse or fine, with fine matter being more harmful because it can enter the lungs and bloodstream. Particulate matter exposure is associated with a range of health effects, from coughing and shortness of breath to severe asthma and premature death from cardiovascular disease. Research indicates climate change will exacerbate air quality issues by increasing ozone and particulate matter levels, which will adversely influence respiratory issues and cardiovascular conditions.

In addition to ammonia, large animal feeding operations, in particular, are a source of hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. Despite concern that emissions levels from large-scale operations are high enough to warrant regulation under the Clean Air Act, EPA has not finalized development of an estimation method capable of assessing if operations should be subject to requirements set forth under the act

Climate health and greenhouse gas emissions

Climate change influences social and environmental determinants of health, including air and water quality and food security. Agriculture and related activities contribute significantly to climate change through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The total accumulated emissions associated with agriculture constitutes approximately one-third of GHG emissions worldwide. These emissions result directly from agricultural practices and indirectly from associated activities, including the manufacture of inputs (fertilizer production, which is highly energy intensive) and packaging and transportation. The main forms are agriculture-related emissions are: 

  • Methane: released due to enteric fermentation (the digestive process) by livestock and certain practices, such as animal manure storage. Methane accounts for one-third of agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Nitrous oxide: released as a result of certain soil management practices, including fertilizer use and due to the breakdown of livestock manure. The global warming potential of nitrous oxide is around 300 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. 
  • Carbon Dioxide: is released across the stages of agriculture, due to deforestation and land clearing for farmland and fossil fuel use. Soil management practices can intensify or mitigate carbon dioxide release. 

Antimicrobial resistance

Agriculture accounts for the majority of antimicrobial use in the United States, with approximately 70 percent of medically important antibiotics sold nationwide being used in this sector. Antimicrobial resistance in the environment is a significant public health concern, and full understanding of the impact of low levels of antibiotics in the environment and the spread of resistance does not exist. The transfer of resistant bacteria from animals to the environment (and humans) can occur when manure from animals treated with antibiotics is applied to crops or runoff from fields enters waterways.

Food system vulnerability

Common agricultural practices contribute to overall food system vulnerability. Pesticide use supports monocropping practices that increase crop vulnerability to pests, and pesticides harm wildlife and beneficial insects, such as pollinators, that are integral to food production. The use of chemical inputs affects soil acidity, which, in turn, affects productivity. Extreme weather events linked to climate change, such as heat waves, drought, and heavy rain, impact the quality and quantity of crop yields and damage agricultural lands as well as impact food distribution channels. In addition, research indicates higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could adversely impact the nutrient levels, particularly for certain crops.

Farmworkers in the United States

There are an estimated 800,000 hired farmworkers in the United States. These individuals are most commonly employed on farms with annual sales over $500,000 and account for one-third of farm labor. Farm operators and family members account for the other two-thirds of individuals employed in the agriculture sector. Hired farmworkers include immigrant and migrant laborers, who come to the United States both legally and undocumented. The Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service deems hired farmworkers “ The Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service deems hired farmworkers “disadvantaged in the labor market relative to most other U.S wage and salary workers.” Both farm owners and farmworkers face serious health risks. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the fatality rate for workers in agriculture is seven times that of private industry and agricultural workers’ injury rate is 40 percent higher.

Migrant workers harvest tomatoes on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, CA on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.
Farmworker harvests tomatoes on Uesugi Farms in Gilroy, Calif. on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. (Bob Nichols/USDA).

Health risks for agricultural workers

Farmworkers (both owners and hired labor) face significant occupational hazards due to agricultural practices, work conditions, and the challenges of farming. The risks faced by workers vary significantly based on the type of farm on which they work. Common risks faced by agricultural workers include: 

  • Access to care: Both farmworkers and farm owners face barriers accessing health care, including insurance status, the high cost of care, and demanding work schedules that make it difficult to seek care. Unauthorized and migrant workers, in particular, often lack health insurance and may be hesitant to access care due to immigration issues. For instance, a survey of Vermont dairy workers found “fear of immigration enforcement was the greatest barrier to receiving care.” Another persistent issue for farmers and farmworkers is mental health, related to financial stress, injuries, and the inherent challenges of farming, such as unpredictable weather conditions.
  • Pesticide exposure: In the United States, agriculture used 899 million pounds of pesticides in 2012. Farmworkers experience direct exposure through fieldwork. Pesticide exposure has short- and long-term health effects, including increased risk for certain cancers, birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and neurological disorders. Children of farmworkers are also affected as they experience indirect exposure through drift and residues carried into the home on shoes and clothing. Prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides has been associated with decreased mental development and increased risk of attention deficit disorder. Research has also found an association between exposure to certain pesticides and the likelihood of developing diabetes.
  • Respiratory risks and pathogen exposure: Workers in livestock agriculture face additional respiratory risks and exposure to pathogens. Livestock workers are exposed to manure, dust, and bacteria, often in confined spaces. Workers who handle cattle have a higher risk of both latent and active tuberculosis, linked to exposure to bovine tuberculosis. Poultry workers have increased risk of respiratory conditions due to exposure to dust and chemicals.
  • Heat-related illness: Working outdoors, often in high temperatures and wearing heavy clothing for protection purposes, puts farmworkers at risk for heat stress and injuries, including dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and neurological issues.
  • Gender discrimination: While farmworkers as a whole face serious discrimination and labor issues, women, who make up 28 percent of farmworkers, face particular risks. As field workers, women are exposed to chemicals that affect fertility and birth outcomes. When pregnant, these women often struggle to obtain appropriate prenatal care due to factors such as cost, work schedules, language barriers, and transportation. Women also regularly face sexual harassment at work, and migrant women may face pay discrimination.

Mobile Clinic: Bassett Health, Cooperstown, New York

Bassett Health, which houses the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health/Northeast Center for Occupational Health and Safety, operates a mobile clinic that visits farms and select events for the agricultural community. This clinic offers basic preventive care and screenings, such as blood pressure, vision, and hearing as well as immunizations and serves as a gateway for other services provided by the center including safety assessments and training. Clinic staff members refer individuals to a range of other services for health care, mental health, and even financial counseling.

Recommended practices for hospital community health engagement

The health impacts of agricultural practices are location specific. To fully understand the specific community impacts, hospitals should conduct an inventory of the direct and indirect ways agricultural policies and practices may affect health — from air and water quality issues to increasing community exposure to pathogens to contributing to the climate-related risks.

Water quality

To gain a deeper understanding of community water quality, hospitals should examine the water quality monitoring and oversight in the communities they serve. Water quality monitoring is carried out by a combination of federal, state, and local authorities. The EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System is the federal database with local data on water quality violation. Specific data potentially associated with agriculture include total coliform level and nitrate level. Water pollution associated with concentrated animal feeding operations, a significant concern in nearby communities, is subject to regulation under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, part of the Clean Water Act. 

Air quality

Environmental Protection Agency sets standards regulating air quality and states monitor air quality and create implementation plans, approved by EPA, to control air pollution according to its standards. Among the core criteria, pollutants monitored are ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxide. Hospitals should look to the state agencies charged with monitoring air quality to understand state regulations, which may be more stringent than federal standards, and to obtain community-specific data. For instance, California has the CalEnviroScreen tool, which identifies areas most affected by pollution and includes pesticide use as an exposure indicator. 

Farmworker and farm owner health

Hospitals in agricultural communities should consider the unique health needs of farmworkers, who face significant risks to their health and safety (such as acute pesticide poisoning), and who may lack access to care. Hospitals should examine how farmworkers’ access-to-care issues may differ from those of the larger community and look for opportunities to partner with community-based organizations to address specific local conditions and health needs. Hospitals can involve farmworker organizations in the community health needs assessment process by including them in key informant interviews or working with them to survey farmworkers about their health challenges and need


Beyond community benefit

Community benefit can be a part of larger anchor strategy employed by hospitals to address food system related health needs and impacts. Another core piece of this strategy is hospital food service that features healthy, sustainably produced local foods. In buying, promoting and serving local foods, hospitals can increase broader access to healthy, sustainable foods while improving the social and economic determinants of health. Supporting a localized, regional food system bolsters the viability of local farms, supports greater community food security, and contributes to local economic development. A recent publication from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank discusses the wide-reaching positive impacts of local food systems investment, including for community health.


Hospitals can look to outside sources to assist in assessing health risks from industrial-scale agriculture in their communities. Public health agencies and university programs can be valuable partners in this effort, sharing environmental health resources, data, and expertise, and recommending measures for hospitals to examine and strategies to employ in support of community health. Additionally, there are multiple large nonprofit organizations focused on agriculture, environmental health, and farmworker health that can be valuable sources of data and guidance. These include Food and Water Watch and National Center for Farmworker Health (see table below).

The table below outlines specific opportunities for hospitals to assess agriculture-related health issues in their communities.

Utilize national and local resources

Utilize national and local resources to increase understanding of the health risks posed by industrial-scale agriculture and the unique needs of farmworkers and farm owners. Local resources include state and local governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations focused on environmental health, public health, and agriculture.


Under the Centers for Disease Control, 11 centers for agricultural health and safety operate across the country. These entities conduct extensive research on injury, education, and prevention related to agricultural workers and practices. Each covers a distinct regional area and many are affiliated with research universities.

Food and Water Watch publishes the Factory Farm Map tool, which provides an overview of large animal feeding operations, based on USDA data.

The National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH)  supports 500 community and migrant health centers across the country with technical assistance, educational resources, and services to support farmworkers. These centers, which receive private and federal funding, exist in nearly every state.


Bassett Health/New York Center for Agricultural Medicine produces the Farmworker Clinical Care Resource, which includes research and information by production type, diagnostic tools (WHACS, a tool for taking farmworker occupational health history), and education and prevention tools for use in farmworker care. The site also contains extensive research, pertinent to regional agricultural activities, drawn from the other centers.

This mapping tool shows the concentration of animal agriculture operations and can filtered to view type of operation (cattle, dairy, hog, broiler, layers) and provides county-level data.

NCFH offers support for community needs assessments and farmworker population estimates. Farmworker population estimate reports can be developed for county, multi-county, or state level and include both an agricultural profile (with maps) and a labor profile. Their website includes extensive research and data, including an analysis of the National Agricultural Worker Survey and also resources, including bilingual education materials

Conduct a collaborative CHNA with a public health agency

Conduct a collaborative community health needs assessment with a public health agency and/or university partners to draw on expertise related to environmental health 


Due to their role in environmental monitoring and regulation, public health agencies are important resources for data and research on environmental health issues, such as air and water quality. Local public health departments draw on state and national resources for best practice. Colleges and universities with agriculture, environmental science, and public health programs can also be valuable partners in assessment efforts.


The National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO) has extensive resources on environmental health assessments and practices. For instance, NACCHO developed a framework to support collaboration between public health, medical communities, and water utilities to address water quality. 

Participate in state and local food system planning

Participate in state and local food system planning efforts. 


Food policy council and food systems planning initiatives across the country incorporate environmental health objectives, such as reducing runoff, protecting pollinators, and promoting more sustainable practices. 

For example, Vermont Farm to Plate is charged with implementing the state’s farm-to-plate strategic plan, which includes specific goals related to agricultural pollution of Lake Champlain, and the Massachusetts Food Policy Council developed the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, which includes the goal of reduced exposure to toxic chemicals in the food system. 


Center for a Livable Future’s Food Policy Networks project includes an online directory of more than 300 food policy councils across the country. The directory includes initiatives operating at the state and local levels.

Across the county, hospitals participate in food policy councils. Moreover, food policy councils can be valuable participants in the community health needs assessment/community health improvement plan process, bringing substantial knowledge of community resources and understanding of agricultural issues.

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