Cutting emissions of a common air pollutant in half could help fuel crop growth in several major agricultural regions around the world, according to a new Science Advances study led by researchers at the University of Stanford, who suggested the reductions could serve as an important mechanism for mitigating the negative agricultural effects of climate change.
Researchers found that reducing levels of nitrogen oxides—one of the most common pollutants found in car exhaust and industrial emissions—could increase growth of winter crops by as much as 25% in China and 10% in Western Europe. In the study, researchers—who analyzed satellite images of crop greenness and nitrogen dioxide levels from 2018 to 2020—also found higher levels of the air pollutant were consistently linked with decreased crop growth worldwide. Cutting levels of nitrogen oxides in half would benefit summer crops as well, with a potential for 8% growth in crop yields in India, 15% in China and 10% in Western Europe. North and South America had the lowest levels of nitrogen oxides out of all the five regions, which included China, India, South America, the United States and Western Europe. Working to reduce air pollution through actions such as transitioning to electric vehicles could produce “substantial” agricultural benefits, including enough to “help ease the challenge of feeding a growing population,” said Jennifer Burney, a study author and associate professor of environmental science at the University of California San Diego. Big Number $5 billion a year. That’s how much money the U.S gained from improvements in air quality between 1999 and 2019 that fueled a 20% growth in corn and soybean crops, according to previous research conducted by two of the Science Advances study authors. Key Background Nitrogen oxides are gases that can both directly and indirectly destroy crops through several mechanisms, including by contributing to the formation of ozone, a toxin that blocks plant growth. Nitrogen oxides also contribute to the growth of aerosols that absorb and divert sunlight away from crops. Few studies have examined nitrogen oxides’ impact on crops at a large scale, according to the Science Advances study. Climate change has the potential to negatively impact crop production in a host of ways, including through intense heat waves, droughts and a rise in average temperatures. Conversely, research has also shown certain agricultural production sectors can contribute to climate change by fueling air pollution. Further Reading Air Pollution Caused By Global Food Production Is Killing More Than 890,000 People A Year, Study Finds (Forbes)