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Fossil fuel emissions are not only driving climate change and worsening air quality, they’re also hurting crop yields enough to cause annual losses of some $63 billion in East Asia, say researchers. scientists.

With high levels of ozone pollution, China, South Korea and Japan are experiencing declining yields of wheat, rice and corn, according to a study published on Monday In the diary Natural food.

China alone is losing a third of its potential wheat production and almost a quarter of rice yields due to ozone disrupting plant growth. That has worrying implications beyond the region, as Asia provides the bulk of the world’s rice supply.

“East Asia is one of the world’s largest bread baskets and rice bowls,” said lead author Zhaozhong Feng, an environmental researcher at Nanjing University of Science and Information Technology.

Asia is also a hotspot for ozone, which forms when sunlight interacts with greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds released by burning fossil fuels.

In the stratosphere, an ozone layer protects the planet from ultraviolet radiation. But closer to the Earth’s surface, ozone can harm plants and animals, including humans. Feng and his colleagues used ozone monitoring data to estimate that crop damage cost an estimated $63 billion. Previous research on the topic has used computer simulations to assess the economic impact of ozone pollution on crops.

Ozone “directly harms food security in China for all three crops,” Feng said. This is a concern for China, which is already worried about the declining quality of its land. The country has to feed a fifth of the world’s population with only 7 percent of its farmland. As industry, energy and urban sprawl have competed for limited land resources, China lost about 6% of its arable land, or 7.5 million hectares, between 2009 and 2019, according to a state study from land published in August last year.

While Beijing has since drawn a “red line” to protect existing farmland, experts still anticipate the total will drop further by 2030. “In some parts of the world, ozone pollution is comparable or even worse for humans. crops than the other major stressors. from heat, drought and pests,” said Katrina Sharps, a spatial data analyst at the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology.

In a 2018 studyShe and other researchers estimated that global wheat yield losses from ozone pollution totaled $24.2 billion annually between 2010 and 2012. “It’s an underrecognized problem,” Sharps said.

Ozone levels have decreased in the Americas and Europe over the last two decades, with the introduction of more stringent air quality measures. But the pollutant is increasing in Asia. While the gases that contribute to ozone pollution are largely emitted from cities, the impact is worse in rural areas where ozone is formed.

Scientists said the best way to reduce ozone levels is to curb the use of fossil fuels, the same action needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Without tighter emissions controls in Asia, Sharps said, “things are going to get worse.”

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