Air-quality-related health damages of maize

Jason Hill, Andrew Goodkind, Christopher Tessum, Sumil Thakrar, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, Timothy Smith, Natalie Hunt, Kimberley Mullins, Michael Clark, Julian Marshall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Agriculture is essential for feeding the large and growing world population, but it can also generate pollution that harms ecosystems and human health. Here, we explore the human health effects of air pollution caused by the production of maize—a key agricultural crop that is used for animal feed, ethanol biofuel and human consumption. We use county-level data on agricultural practices and productivity to develop a spatially explicit life-cycle-emissions inventory for maize. From this inventory, we estimate health damages, accounting for atmospheric pollution transport and chemistry, and human exposure to pollution at high spatial resolution. We show that reduced air quality resulting from maize production is associated with 4,300 premature deaths annually in the United States, with estimated damages in monetary terms of US$39 billion (range: US$14–64 billion). Increased concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are driven by emissions of ammonia—a PM2.5 precursor—that result from nitrogen fertilizer use. Average health damages from reduced air quality are equivalent to US$121 t−1 of harvested maize grain, which is 62% of the US$195 t−1 decadal average maize grain market price. We also estimate life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of maize production, finding total climate change damages of US$4.9 billion (range: US$1.5–7.5 billion), or US$15 t−1 of maize. Our results suggest potential benefits from strategic interventions in maize production, including changing the fertilizer type and application method, improving nitrogen use efficiency, switching to crops requiring less fertilizer, and geographically recating production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-403
Number of pages7
JournalNature Sustainability
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank R. Noe, K. Colgan and N. Domingo for assistance. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy (EE0004397), US Department of Agriculture (2011-68005-30411 and MIN-12-083), University of Minnesota Grand Challenges Initiative and Wellcome Trust (Our Planet Our Health; Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP); 205212/Z/16/Z). This publication was also developed as part of the Center for Clean Air Climate Solutions, which was supported under Assistance Agreement number R835873 awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It has not been formally reviewed by the EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the agency. EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.

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