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Growing Corn Kills People

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Jason Hill, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and a team of other scientists issued a study on April 1, 2019, which initially I thought was an April Fool’s joke. It is no joke!
According to one publication and its author, Prachi Patel, wrote on April 4, 2019 “…corn is killing us in unseen, complicated ways in addition to damaging the environment, …” The study is in Nature Sustainability. It finds that “…air pollution from corn production in the U.S. causes 4,300 premature deaths every year.”

In addition to the deaths annually in the U.S., the study estimates growing corn causes annual damages to human health of approximately $39 billion dollars. The study further finds that “…estimate[d] life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of maize production, [creates] total climate change damages of $4.9 billion (range: $1.5-7.5 billion).”

The Abstract to Dr. Hill’s study allows that agriculture is essential in helping to feed the world’s population. But, the abstract of the study claims that agriculture is generating harmful pollution and human health effects. The study claims it uses county-level data to develop a model. The model in turn develops a life-cycle emission inventory from which Dr. Hill and his colleagues “estimate health damages” of how much air pollution is created from the production of corn. The model, not actual data, suggests the 4,300 premature deaths annually. EPA’s position is that any inhalation of particulate matter at 2.5 microns can cause death.

Others claim particulate matter at 2.5 microns does not kill anyone and that EPA’s studies are fraudulent. To put a micron in perspective, one strand of hair is about 50 microns in size. The eye can see down to about 40 microns. Diesel smoke used to be above 40 microns and is now down to 30 or less.  EPA, according to one author, admits that epidemiologic studies do not generally provide evidence of direct causation. The Dr. Hill study claims the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel used in farm equipment contribute to poor air, water, pollution and climate change.

Dr. Hill is a bioproducts-biosystems engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. His team evaluated pollutants emitted from agriculture practices which help create Particulate Matter known as PM2.5. Dr. Hill’s researchers believe PM2.5 helps to cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes and cancer. The research team, in creating its life-cycle model, attempt to estimate the emissions coming from the burning of diesel fuel, fertilizer production, electricity use, transportation, and in-field corn production and harvesting.

The Minnesota team estimated the increases of emissions of Particulate Matter and then compared them to population exposure of county residents. One report published by Future Earth stated, “Ammonia emissions from fertilizer use account for 71% of pollution-linked deaths.”

Dr. Hill and his team believe farmers need to change their use of fertilizer types and application methods. His team also suggests that farmers be offered incentives to evaluate other crops not requiring as much fertilizer. A number of groups are attacking the production of corn. One group promotes a movie entitled “King Corn.” It too suggests corn is killing us and of course attacks GMO corn because it is claimed 88% of corn is genetically modified. In fact, one blog claims “…corn is (slowly) killing you.”

Agriculture and corn growers need to recognize there are groups and now a prestigious university attacking corn production practices in the U.S. As usual, opposition groups start by estimating the health damages a certain product creates. In this case, Dr. Hill and his team and apparently the University of Minnesota are claiming that growing corn creates premature deaths. Some would say the attack on another agricultural product – tobacco – started the same way. The study, which evaluates health damages created by growing corn, can be purchased for $8.99. It is worth reading.

This commentary originally appeared in Farm Futures on April 11, 2019.
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