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The way we grow corn kills about 4,300 Americans a year

The damage to human health can cost more than the value of the corn itself, says University of Minnesota professor Jason Hill.

The damage to human health can cost more than the value of the corn itself, says University of Minnesota professor Jason Hill. David Joles, Star Tribune

University of Minnesota engineering professor Jason Hill would like you to know that corn can kill you.

He’s not saying corn itself is dangerous. It’s the way we grow it. He’s the lead author of a recent study, which shows that annually, about 4,300 Americans die due to air pollution related to corn production.

“When we think of air pollution, what typically comes to mind is burning coal,” he says. But he estimates that growing corn causes about 4 percent of deaths due to the reduction in air quality.

The real culprit is the nitrogen corn needs to grow. Some ends up being released into the air as ammonia, combining with other substances to form fine particles. These particles then drift away from farms into more densely populated areas, where they can accumulate in the body and cause heart attacks and cancer.

Most corn is produced in the Midwest – Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska, and around our neck of the woods. But in places where corn is produced in lower quantities and less-efficient soil – places that need to rely more on those nitrogen fertilizers – Hill says the damage to human health can cost more than the value of the corn itself.

This isn’t to say you should immediately cut corn out of your life. Hill and his co-authors just picked corn for a preliminary study because it’s the most widely produced feed grain in the United States. Last year, we used 90 million acres of farmland to grow 14 billion bushels, and it’s heavily subsidized. To find out just what agriculture as a whole costs us in air pollution, Hill is going to need a lot more data. 

“Stay tuned,” he says.

Americans don’t actually eat that much corn. Ninety percent ends up as either food for livestock or ethanol. If this study is trying to reach anybody, it’s the farmers who purchase corn for their animals, and the lawmakers who could consider regulating how it’s grown. There are ways to keep more nitrogen in the soil and let less of it become poisonous ammonia.

“It would be a good thing for farmers, too,” he says. “They don’t want their money essentially going up into the atmosphere.”

And they certainly don’t want to end up giving somebody cancer. Once we put a number value on that cost to human life, Hill says, maybe we can get serious about making it smaller.

“This is not about only our own health, but the health of others,” he says.