Air-quality-related health damages of maize

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 reallocating production.

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Fig. 1: County-level US maize production.
Fig. 2: Emissions per square kilometre of primary PM2.5 and secondary PM2.5 precursors from US maize production.
Fig. 3: PM2.5 impacts of US maize production.
Fig. 4: Illustrative results of PM2.5 impact assessment using the top maize-producing county in each of the top five maize-producing states.
Fig. 5: Production-weighted national average human mortality per million tonnes of maize produced, by pollutant and supply chain stage.
Fig. 6: County-level per-tonne monetized damages as a result of US maize production at a VSL of US$9.1 million (2017$) and GHGs at a SCC of US$43 (2017$) per tonne of CO2e.
Fig. 7: GHG emissions per tonne of maize produced.

Data availability

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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Jason Hill.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–3

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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Hill, J., Goodkind, A., Tessum, C. et al. Air-quality-related health damages of maize. Nat Sustain 2, 397–403 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0261-y

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