Reducing air pollution can help us feed the world

(ORDO NEWS) — Planting more crops isn’t the only way to feed a growing population. Reducing air pollution can greatly increase crop production while saving precious land and money, according to new research.

If the world halved emissions of just one type of air pollutant, it is estimated that winter crop yields would increase by 28% in China and by 10% in other parts of the world.

We are talking about nitrogen oxides – a family of invisible, poisonous gases formed as a result of vehicle exhaust gases and industrial emissions, which include nitrogen dioxide.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides are among the most common air pollutants in the world, and it is suspected that if plants are exposed to elevated levels of these gases, their leaves may be damaged and growth stunted, although experts are still figuring out exactly how.

At the same time, nitrogen oxides are precursors to the formation of ozone and tiny aerosols in the atmosphere, which can dim sunlight and, in turn, reduce crop yields.

Last year, a study by the same authors found that reductions in ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide resulted in a 20 percent increase in U.S. corn and soybean yields between 1999 and 2019.

That’s about $5 billion that saves crops every year by reducing emissions of just four types of air pollutants.

Nitrogen dioxide is one of the most easily measured pollutants at the regional level and can be directly correlated with crop growth. When released into the atmosphere, nitrogen dioxide interacts with ultraviolet light, which is easily detected by satellites.

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

“Because we can also measure crop yields from space, this has opened up an opportunity to quickly improve our knowledge of how these gases affect agriculture in different regions.”

Comparing nitrogen dioxide emissions in various regions of the world with the greenery of arable land, the team found a consistently negative effect.

The loss of greenery was especially noticeable in China and for winter crops such as wheat. Using this correlation, the researchers calculated that reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions by 50 percent would increase winter crop yields in China by about 28 percent. In summer, yields can increase by 16 percent.

In India, researchers predict that reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions could increase crop yields by 8 percent in winter and 6 percent in summer. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, summer and winter crop yields could increase by 10 percent.

With yields typically hovering around one percent per year, the impact of reducing air pollution can be huge in some parts of the world.

“The main conclusion of this study is that the agricultural benefits from these actions can be really significant, enough to alleviate the problem of feeding a growing population,” says environmentalist Jennifer Burney of the University of California at San Diego.

We may not yet know how nitrogen oxides directly affect plant growth, but the strong relationship found in this study suggests that air pollution contributes to crop losses worldwide.”

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