Cut air pollution, else face food shortage

Adding fuel to the burgeoning alarmist predictions on the varied impact of air pollution, scientists have now demonstrated that it has a direct effect on crop productivity as well.

A double whammy considering that climate change has already been shown to affect crop yields. We are not talking about some distant part of the globe, but right here, in India.

A study reported in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences says wheat production in Uttar Pradesh is down 50 per cent due to air pollution in the last three decades, between 1980 and 2010. And, this state produces one-third of India’s wheat crop besides 14 per cent of its rice.

At least seven other states in the northern belt including West Bengal have shown lower yields.

The only consolation is that the bread basket states of Punjab and Haryana are not that affected and so too are Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. What makes the situation dire is that air pollution not only reduces crop yields but also directly affects plant growth leading to alteration in atmospheric temperatures and quality of rainfall.

The study needs to be taken seriously as this is the first time research has demonstrated how air pollution contributes more to crop loss than even climate change.

The only small consolation is that rice is seemingly less affected by air pollution. The study says that agronomically wheat is more sensitive and that is the reason why its yield has reduced. Interestingly, the study uses a new methodology.

According to co-author Jennifer Burney, the study used historical data and adopted “a statistical approach, as opposed to models, to understand how pollutants, temperature and precipitation and technology trends have all contributed together to reduce Indian crop yields over time”. 

Ensuring better air quality is no longer limited to breathing in fresh air but inextricably linked to India’s food security. Burning of fossil fuels is a primary cause for air pollution. This need not be the case.

There are alternative technologies available including in India’s rural setting. Cleaner cooking stoves, diesel particulate filters, better fuels and switching to cleaner combined-cycle natural gas are some of the options already available.

All that the government needs to do is ensure these are put into practice on a massive scale to help hasten the process of depolluting the air.

The researchers warn that the damaging link between air pollution and crop yields should provoke government planners to take the tough decision of stalling the proposed thermal power plants and regulate the setting up of polluting industries like cement and steel.

This is one warning that planners must pay heed to.

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