Air Pollution Isn’t Just Bad for Your Health—It’s Taking Food off Your Plate

Scientists find that ozone pollution and climate change could reduce global crop production 15 percent by 2050.

(Photo: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Jul 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Scientists have long predicted climate change would begin to cripple global food production as rising temperatures damage crops. Now a first-of-its-kind study by MIT scientists shows that as the planet warms, ozone pollution will eat into the yields of four crops that provide more than half the world’s calories. By 2050, the double whammy of climate change and ozone pollution could cut the supply of corn, rice, soybeans, and wheat by as much as 15 percent.

The result: Malnourishment in developing countries could spike by 49 percent, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Like climate change, ozone pollution is a human-made phenomenon arising from our dependence on fossil fuels.

Ozone is a powerful pollutant, created by the burning of fossil fuels in cars or power plants. It affects human health and plants alike. Ozone levels increase as temperatures rise, and researchers predict Americans face a 70 percent jump in unhealthy summertime ozone events by 2050.

Corn and soybean production may fall between 20 percent and 50 percent in the United States, Europe, and South America owing to higher and more frequent extreme temperatures and ozone pollution, according to the paper. Ozone exposure is also likely to damage wheat harvests.

At the same time, food production must increase by at least 50 percent by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population and the burgeoning middle classes in countries such as China and India.

However, the impact will vary, with climate change affecting some regions of the world more while ozone pollution hits others harder. That’s particularly true in developing nations, which lack air pollution controls enacted in the U.S. and Europe.

“This highlights that policies formulated to ensure food security should be developed with local and domestic conditions in mind,” said Colette Heald, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and coauthor of the paper.

While some researchers are trying to create strains of wheat that are more ozone-resistant, it’s not likely that new crops will make up for lost food production.

Heald said the findings call attention to the need for government action to control air pollution. “Hopefully our conclusions will motivate policy makers to consider air quality management as a viable option to enhance food production worldwide,” she said.

If they do, the researchers found, malnourishment rates could be halved.