Felicity Hayes, a plant scientist, keeps an eye on her crops from one of the eight tiny, dome-shaped greenhouses she has built against the Welsh hills. The spring-planted papaya and pigeon pea plants in pots are already lush and green and will soon produce fruit.
The identical plants appear sickly and stunted in a nearby greenhouse. The papaya trees are only half as tall as the pigeon peas, which have elderly yellow leaves with pockmarks.
Ozone pollution is the only distinction between the two greenhouse atmospheres.
Hayes, who works at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), pumps ozone gas into the greenhouses where African staple crops are being grown at varied quantities. She is researching the potential effects of growing ozone pollution on agricultural yields and food security for small-scale farmers in developing nations.
Research indicates that ozone, a gas created when sunlight, heat, and fossil fuel emissions interact, can result in significant losses for farmers by prematurely aging crops before they reach their maximum production potential and reducing photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into food.
Stress from ozone weakens plants’ insect defenses as well.
According to a 2018 study published in the journal Global Change Biology, ozone pollution caused $24.2 billion in yearly global losses of wheat from 2010 to 2012. Researchers estimated the annual losses of wheat, rice, and maize in East Asia during the previous ten years at almost $63 billion in an article published in Nature Food in January.
Since the population of Africa is expected to double by the middle of the century, there will be an increase in vehicle traffic and rubbish burning in that region. More ozone pollution will result, which will be difficult for smallholder farmers, who make up 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa.
At the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Zimbabwe, senior scientist Martin Moyo remarked, “There is a genuine concern that ozone pollution will harm yields in the long run.”
Across the continent, he emphasized the “urgent need for more rural research to estimate ozone concentrations.”
The UK-based non-profit Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) hired scientists to install ozone monitoring equipment around cocoa and maize fields in Ghana, Zambia, and Kenya earlier this year.
Ozone in the stratosphere shields the planet from the sun’s UV rays. It can injure humans as well as plants and animals closer to the planet’s surface.
While air quality rules have assisted in lowering ozone levels in the United States and Europe, the trend for rapidly developing Africa and portions of Asia is expected to soar in the opposite way. Climate change may hasten the process.
According to new research, warmer temperatures may exacerbate the issue in African regions with heavy fossil fuel emissions and frequent burning of grassland or forests because they might quicken chemical reactions that produce ozone.