Air-quality-related health damages of maize

Air-quality-related health damages of maize

Jason Hill1, Andrew Goodkind2, Christopher Tessum3, Sumil Thakrar1, David Tilman4, Stephen Polasky4,5, Timothy Smith1, Natalie Hunt1, Kimberley Mullins1, Michael Clark1,4,6 & Julian Marshall3

1Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, United States.

2Department of Economics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM, United States.

3Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States.

4Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, United States.

5Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, United States.

6Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.

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Agriculture is essential for feed the world population, but also has large health and environmental impacts. In this paper we explore the human health and economic damages of maize production in the U.S. To do so, we use county-level data on agricultural practices and productivity to develop spatially explicit estimates of air pollution related to maize production, and then track atmospheric transportation of the air pollution to estimate human exposure, health impacts, and economic damages. 

Reduced air quality from maize production leads to an estimated 4,300 premature deaths annually in the U.S., having associated monetary damages of US$39 billion (range: US$ 14-64 billion). Human health damages are driven primarily by emissions of ammonia - a precursor of PM2.5 - resulting from nitrogen fertilizer use. Average economic damages are US$121 per tonne of maize produced, or 62% of the average market price of maize over the last decade ($US192 per tonne). By estimating the GHG emissions of maize production, we find that climate-related damages of maize production are small ($US15 per tonne) in comparison to the health-related damages of maize production.

Recent work has examined the health impacts of food consumption and the potential health benefits of transitioning to healthier diets, with a comparatively small focus on the health impacts of how food is produced. However, our work shows that food production also has sizeable human health impacts, and that changes in management techniques could mitigate some of these impacts. Future research will extend this work to include other food groups, animal agriculture, and countries.


Publication details

Hill et al. 2019. Air-quality-related health damages of maize. Nature Sustainability -