Abstract

Agriculture is essential for feeding the large and growing world population, but it can also generate pollution that harms ecosystems and human health. Here, we explore the human health effects of air pollution caused by the production of maize—a key agricultural crop that is used for animal feed, ethanol biofuel and human consumption. We use county-level data on agricultural practices and productivity to develop a spatially explicit life-cycle-emissions inventory for maize. From this inventory, we estimate health damages, accounting for atmospheric pollution transport and chemistry, and human exposure to pollution at high spatial resolution. We show that reduced air quality resulting from maize production is associated with 4,300 premature deaths annually in the United States, with estimated damages in monetary terms of US$39 billion (range: US$14–64 billion). Increased concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are driven by emissions of ammonia—a PM2.5 precursor—that result from nitrogen fertilizer use. Average health damages from reduced air quality are equivalent to US$121 t−1 of harvested maize grain, which is 62% of the US$195 t−1 decadal average maize grain market price. We also estimate life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of maize production, finding total climate change damages of US$4.9 billion (range: US$1.5–7.5 billion), or US$15 t−1 of maize. Our results suggest potential benefits from strategic interventions in maize production, including changing the fertilizer type and application method, improving nitrogen use efficiency, switching to crops requiring less fertilizer, and geographically recating production.

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Data supporting the findings of this study beyond those found in the Supplementary Information are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. Noe, K. Colgan and N. Domingo for assistance. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy (EE0004397), US Department of Agriculture (2011-68005-30411 and MIN-12-083), University of Minnesota Grand Challenges Initiative and Wellcome Trust (Our Planet Our Health; Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP); 205212/Z/16/Z). This publication was also developed as part of the Center for Clean Air Climate Solutions, which was supported under Assistance Agreement number R835873 awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally reviewed by the EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the agency. EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN, USA

    • Jason Hill
    • , Sumil Thakrar
    • , Timothy Smith
    • , Natalie Hunt
    • , Kimberley Mullins
    •  & Michael Clark
  2. Department of Economics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, USA

    • Andrew Goodkind
  3. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Christopher Tessum
    •  & Julian Marshall
  4. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN, USA

    • David Tilman
    • , Stephen Polasky
    •  & Michael Clark
  5. Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • David Tilman
  6. Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, MN, USA

    • Stephen Polasky
  7. Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Michael Clark
  8. Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Michael Clark

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Contributions

J.H. and A.G. conceived and designed the experiments. J.H., A.G. and C.T. performed the experiments. J.H., A.G., C.T. and D.T. analysed the data. J.H., A.G., C.T., S.T., N.H. and K.M. contributed materials/analysis tools. All authors wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jason Hill.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–3

  2. Supplementary Dataset 1

    County-specific lifecycle emissions model inputs. This file contains the input values for use in GREET-cst. Included are maize yields, fertilizer rates and types, manure application rates, pesticide rates and types, machinery requirements and fugitive dust emissions.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0261-y