Reducing air pollution can help us feed humanity more easily

Growing more crops isn’t the only way to feed a growing population. According to new research, reducing air pollution can contribute significantly to increased crop production, while saving land and precious money.

If the world halves emissions of one type of air pollutant, it is estimated that some winter crops could produce about 28% more in China and up to 10% more in other parts of the world.

The pollutants in question are nitrogen oxides, a family of invisible and toxic gases from automobile exhaust and industrial emissions, which include nitrogen dioxide.

Nitrogen oxide emissions are among the world’s most prevalent air pollutants, and it is suspected that if plants are exposed to higher levels of these gases, their leaves may be damaged and their growth may slow, although experts have yet to find out. How exactly.

Air pollution contributes to crop losses around the world

At the same time, nitrogen oxides are also a precursor to the formation of ozone and small aerosols in the atmosphere, which can reduce sunlight, and thus reduce crop yield.

Last year, research by some of the same authors found that reductions in ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide led to a 20% increase in corn and soybean yields in the United States between 1999 and 2019.

That means about $5 billion, representing crops saved each year by reducing just four types of air pollutants.

Nitrogen dioxide is one of the pollutants that is easily regionally measured and directly compared to crop growth. When emitted into the atmosphere, nitrogen dioxide reacts with ultraviolet radiation in a way that can be easily detected by satellites.

“Nitrogen oxides are invisible to humans, but new satellites have been able to map them with incredible accuracy,” says agricultural ecologist David Lobell of Stanford University.

The challenge of feeding a growing population

“As we can measure crop and space production, this has opened up the opportunity to rapidly improve our knowledge of how these gases affect agriculture in different regions.”

By comparing nitrogen dioxide emissions from different regions of the world with the degree of greening of the cultivated land, the team found a consistent negative effect.

The loss of green space was particularly evident in China for winter crops such as wheat. Using this correlation, the researchers estimate that reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions by 50% would improve the yield of Chinese winter crops by about 28%. ScienceAlert writes that during the summer yields can be improved by 16%.

In India, researchers estimate that reducing nitrogen dioxide can increase crop yields by up to 8 percent for the winter and 6 percent in the summer. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the yield of summer and winter crops can increase by 10 percent.

In some parts of the world the effects of reducing pollution can be enormous

Given that rates of return typically fluctuate around one percent each year, the effects of reducing air pollution can be enormous in some parts of the world.

“The main finding of this study is that the agricultural benefits of these measures could be really significant, enough to help mitigate the challenge of feeding a growing population,” said Jennifer Burnie, an environmental researcher at the University of California San Diego.

We may not yet know how nitrogen oxides have a direct effect on plant growth, but the strong relationship found in current research suggests that air pollution contributes to crop losses around the world.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

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