A new study publish in Nature found corn production in the U.S. could be responsible for thousands of air pollution deaths annually.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota modeled the emission impacts of producing corn and compared them to local pollution-related deaths. The scientists estimate there are 4,300 deaths in the U.S. each year attributed to air pollution from corn production.
Corn is the most widely produced feed grain in the U.S. and is grown on more than 90 million acres of farmland. According to the National Corn Growers Association, about 90% of corn in the U.S. is used to feed livestock and produce ethanol.
Researchers looked at the effects of corn production because the U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of the crop and it is the most popular farm crop in the country.
The research team made a “life-cycle assessment” model to understand the air quality impacts of corn production. This model accounts for every step in the process of corn production, including emissions from farm equipment to the production of fertilizers.
The study found that more than 85% of the air quality impacts came from activity directly on the farmland. The primary culprit is the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
The researchers suggest changes in fertilizer type and application process, as well as improving nitrogen use efficiency, could help decrease air pollution associated with corn production.