Study: Pollution from corn production increases human mortality

We’ve expended plenty of virtual ink here debating the wisdom of government mandates forcing the oil and gas industry to blend increasingly large volumes of ethanol into the nation’s gasoline supply. It’s a complex subject, but it always comes back to the corn farmers in the midwest, particularly in Iowa. Their oversized political clout has allowed them to push for more and more ethanol production and, as a result, an artificial demand for more corn. One recently published study looks at a perhaps unanticipated side effect of growing all of that corn. As it turns out, the ethanol creation chain is a dirty business and it appears to be leading to health issues including higher death rates for those impacted by it. (Science Daily)

The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Sustainability, presents how researchers have estimated for the first time the health damages caused by corn production using detailed information on pollution emissions, pollution transport by wind, and human exposure to increased air pollution levels. Corn is a key agricultural crop used for animal feed, ethanol biofuel, and human consumption.

The study also shows how the damage to human health of producing a bushel of corn differs from region to region and how, in some areas, the health damages of corn production are greater than its market price.

“The deaths caused per bushel in western corn belt states such as Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska tend to be lower than in eastern corn belt states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio,” said lead researcher Jason Hill, associate professor at the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

I’ll just say up front that I’m a bit dubious about the findings of this study. I’m not saying the results probably aren’t accurate, but picking out corn production as the single slice of our agricultural economy to study is parsing the industry with a pretty fine-toothed comb.

So what is the health hazard causing premature deaths from growing corn? The primary driver is reduced air quality due to an increase in fine particulate matter (FPM) in the atmosphere at ground level. The FPM increases are driven by the large volumes of nitrogen-based fertilizer used in nearly all corn production. They also talk about life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions impacting climate change. Ammonia emissions from the most commonly used fertilizers are also a concern.

From this, the study’s authors manage to generate a cost-per-bushel in terms of loss of human life and climate impact, which seems a bit too specific to be verifiable, but the overall message is clear. Huge growth in cornfields leads to lower air quality and adverse impacts on people’s health. As far as I’m concerned, it would be fair to say that any massive human endeavor in either industry or agriculture is going to lead to adverse environmental and health impacts, but we may as well take this study at face value.

So if we assume this is true, what do we do about it in terms of corn production levels? Aside from immediately banning the Hallmark Channel, not many things come to mind. The only option would be to start growing less corn. Since we use a lot of it as food that’s not much of an option at all. We could, however, curb the trend by not burning so much of our corn for fuel and going back to, you know… just eating it. But that would mean getting rid of the government ethanol mandates. And despite the fact the most Americans don’t know or care about whether or not they’re putting ethanol in their cars, you can’t expect our politicians to grow a spine and risk the wrath of King Corn.