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Reducing nitrogen oxide pollution could boost crop yields

With a growing world population and decreases in agricultural production due to geopolitical conflicts, food security is becoming an increasingly critical issue. Now, a research team led by Stanford University has uncovered another way to increase crop production. The researchers found that removing nitrogen oxides (NOx) gases from the air benefited crop production.

“Nitrogen oxides are invisible to humans, but new satellites have been able to map them with incredibly high precision. Since we can also measure crop production from space, this opened up the chance to rapidly improve our knowledge of how these gases affect agriculture in different regions,” explained study lead author David Lobell.

Nitrogen oxide gases are a common air pollutant released by cars and industrial equipment. NOx gases directly damage plant cells. Moreover, they generate air particulates, which prevent crops from receiving light, and ozone, a toxin that reduces yields. 

These effects are far from benign. The researchers believe that cutting nitrogen oxide emissions in half would significantly improve crop yield. According to their estimates, winter crop yield in China would increase by 25 percent, and summer crop yield would increase by 15 percent. Summer and winter crop yields would both increase by 10 percent in Western Europe, and summer crops in India would rise by about 8 percent, while winter crops would rise about 6 percent.

The researchers mentioned that North and South America have very low NOx exposure and did not report any difference in crop production in these regions. It’s not lost on the experts that their findings relate to the struggle against climate change. 

“The actions you would take to reduce NOx, such as vehicle electrification, overlap closely with the types of energy transformations needed to slow climate change and improve local air quality for human health,” said study co-author Jennifer Burney.

The researchers hope to learn more about how nitrogen dioxide affects crops during the different growing seasons. They also look forward to exploring how other pollutants affect crop yield. Furthermore, they want to look at the relationship between nitrogen dioxide and climate to better understand why it affects regions differently.

“It’s really exciting how many different things can be measured from satellites now, much of it coming from new European satellites,” said study co-author Stefania Di Tommaso. “As the data keep improving, it really drives us to be more ambitious and creative as scientists in the types of questions we ask.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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