UMN researchers look for solutions to corn-based pollution

University researchers found air pollution from corn production contributes to 4,300 premature deaths per year in the U.S.

Katie Salai

University of Minnesota researchers have found that corn production is causing air pollution and contributing to poor health — but they have solutions in mind.

Research released by University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering found the production of maize diminishes air quality in the United States, contributing to negative health effects and even premature death. Their research, published April 1, suggests a variety of solutions to alleviate agriculture’s impact on the environmental.

According to the study, “maize-dependent air quality reductions contribute to morbidity-related medical costs and reduced quality of life.” An average of 4,300 premature deaths in the United States per year are due to reduced air quality from maize production, with around 255 in Minnesota, according to the research.

“When people think of poor air quality, they think of diesel trucks and coal plants and such. They don’t tend to think of agriculture,” said lead author Jason Hill, associate professor in the University Department of Bioproducts and Bioengineering. “The fertilizer used to produce corn … that’s a lot of ammonia, and that ammonia travels to affect not only people in farms, but people in urban areas.”

The study says the downwind emissions then end up in metropolitan areas around the “Corn Belt” of the United States, such as the Twin Cities.

“We don’t think of cornfields particularly being like polluting factories, and yet they contribute to emissions, in this case like ammonia, which contributes to downwind formation of particulate matter, which causes health problems,” said Stephen Polasky, a University professor of ecological and environmental economics.

County-level efforts can be a challenge because individual farms are not as easily regulated as larger industries. Polansky said they could incentivize farmers to retire crop fields that generate the highest damage as part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Programs, which have been used for other environmental concerns.

“We prevented soil erosion, and we improved water quality. But you could, in principle, think about this also for air pollution consequences,” he said.

Their research also suggests changing fertilizer types, switching to perennial crops and improving the efficiency of nitrogen use to reduce emissions. Corn receives nearly half of all nitrogen fertilizer applied in the United States.

Frank Kohlasch, environmental program manager of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said agriculture has not been the state’s primary focus of emission reduction efforts. Current state efforts for reducing agricultural air pollution refer to manure and equipment engine standards, although much of their concern revolves around other industries.

“We don’t think of agriculture in the same way we think of industry,” Polasky said. “If we were burning coal and there was a smoke stack that was belting out black smoke … we would regulate it … it’s difficult to put farmers in the same category.”