There's more to feeding a growing population than planting more crops. New research shows that cutting air pollution can increase crop production and save money.
Estimates show that if the world cuts emissions of just one type of air pollutant in half, winter crops could yield more in China and other parts of the world.
The pollutants are oxides of nitrogen, a family of invisible, poisonous gasses produced by car exhaust and industrial emissions.
Nitrogen oxide emissions are some of the most widely distributed air pollutants in the world, and it's suspected that if plants are exposed to higher levels of these gasses, their leaves can be damaged and their growth stunted.
Nitrogen oxides can cause ozone and tiny aerosols in the atmosphere which can dim sunlight and reduce crop productivity.
Reductions in ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide caused a 20 percent increase in corn and soybean yields in the US between 1999 and 2019.
Around 5 billion dollars worth of crops are saved each year by reducing air pollutants.
One of the easiest pollutants to measure is nitrogen dioxide. Satellites can easily detect nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere.
Nitrogen oxides are invisible to humans, but new satellites have been able to map them with high accuracy.
Since we can measure crop production from space, we can improve our knowledge of how gasses affect agriculture.
The team compared nitrogen dioxide emissions in different regions of the world with the greenness of cropland.
In China, the loss of greenery was noticeable during the winter. Researchers think that cutting nitrogen dioxide emissions by 50 percent would improve winter crop yields in China. In the summer, yields could go up.
Nitrogen dioxide reductions in India could increase crop yields by up to 8 percent for winter and 6 percent for summer.
The effects of cutting air pollution could be huge for some parts of the world.
According to an environmental scientist from the University of California San Diego, the agricultural benefits of these actions could be really substantial.
The current research shows a strong correlation between air pollution and crop losses, but we don't know how nitrogen oxides affect plant growth.
The study was published in a peer-reviewed journal.