As if the Midwest hasn't had enough trouble this year, a new study says that corn is linked to the deaths of thousands of Americans. The study was published on Monday in Nature Sustainability and shows just how deadly this crop can be. And before you throw out what corn you may have, it seems that the air pollution from growing corn-not eating it is the cause of nearly 4,300 premature deaths a year.
Growing corn results in the emissions of particulate matter, a dangerous pollutant that is so small it can end up in your lungs when inhaled and can even affect your heart. This forms from the ammonia, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds released during fertilizer and manure application, the use of farm machinery, and dust from ploughing and planting. However, fertilizer and manure are the real suspects here. The study shows that they alone account for 71 percent of the corn-related deaths.
"It's important for farmers to have this information so that they can implement practices that reduce the environmental impact of the crops they grow," said lead author Jason Hill, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, in a statement. "Farmers can greatly improve the environmental profile of their corn by using precision agriculture tools and switching to fertilizers that have lower ammonia emissions."
The University of Minnesota group calculated this by running pollution inventory models in each of the top 2,000 corn-growing counties with each county's agricultural data between 2010 and 2014. The authors also looked at county-level data on the amount of fertilizer used per metric ton of corn and coupled it all with air quality models to determine an estimated number of deaths. "The study included not only the emissions directly from the farms themselves, but also their upstream emissions from the fuel and machines they need, their electricity source, and production of agrichemicals." A source says.
These effects can be felt far and wide, with states like Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Indiana who make up a little over half of the study's mortalities. Illinois really has it bad with nearly 800 premature deaths a year thanks to its cash crop. In fact, cities like Chicago and Minneapolis feel the effects as well because of how close the corn production is in the central corn belt.
It is estimated that more than 90 million acres are allotted to the growing of corn. Maybe it's time to rethink how we grow it if we would like to continue having it as a dietary option, while at the same time protecting American farmers.