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Vol. 10 No. 2 - April 2004

The Consequences of Air Pollution for Food Security 

By: Lisa D. Emberson

Air pollution can have disastrous consequences on agriculture close to pollutant sources. Research at the Stockholm Environment Institute at York (SEI-Y) is assessing the link between air pollution, agricultural production and subsequent food security. Dr Lisa Emberson of SEI-Y, who is co-editor of a recently published book entitled Air Pollution Impacts on Crops and Forests, says that studies conducted in the Hunan Province of China found that sulphur dioxide originating from coal-burning power stations resulted in 100% yield losses for sensitive crop species; similarly in India, crops grown in the vicinity of power plants recorded yield reductions of up to 50%.

 However, it is the regional pollutant ozone that is perceived as the biggest threat to future agricultural productivity since levels reach high concentrations over remoter rural agricultural areas. Ozone is a secondary pollutant that is formed by the effect of sunlight on other pollutants, and filtration studies conducted in Pakistan illustrate the dramatic growth reductions caused by ambient ozone levels.

 Such impacts on agricultural productivity can have serious implications where problems of food scarcity exist; studies in India have found that vulnerable sectors of society such as the poor and malnourished as well as those depending on sustainable agriculture for their livelihoods are more severely affected. The book has collated key studies in an attempt to assess the consequences of current and future global air pollutant concentrations on agricultural systems. The Asian region was identified as that facing the most serious risks to agricultural productivity both now and in the future.

 Site-specific studies have brought attention to the problems caused by air pollution however, the magnitude and spatial scale of the problem is hard to quantify across an area the size of Asia. Such assessments are urgently needed to develop appropriate emission abatement or adaptation policies. SEI-Y has established an Asian Air Pollution Network to bring together air pollution impact scientists to assess impacts in a standardized manner. A workshop in Bangkok organized by Dr Emberson recently bought together 30 delegates from 15 different countries to initiate a co-ordinated effort to assess air pollution impacts.

 A list of distinguished participants from various countries at the Workshop and the titles of their respective presentations are given as under:

 Dr. Lisa Emberson (U.K.): Introduction to the RAPIDC Programme; Prof. Yoshihisa Kohno (Japan): Current knowledge: Chronic effects of air pollutants on trees in Far East Asia; Prof. Hakan Pleijel (Sweden): Air quality and risk assessment in Europe and North America; Prof. Frank Murray (Australia): The need of standardised experimental protocols and observations; Dr. Mark Zunckel (South Africa): Approaches used in southern Africa: Assessing biological impacts; Prof. Andreas Klumpp (Germany): Applicaion og bio-monitoring techniques in developing countries; Prof. John Sheehy (IRRI, Phillipines): Monitoring exposures of agricultural crops to O3,NOx,SO2: implications for yield reductions; Prof. K. Kobayashi (Japan): Challenges in predicting the impacts of increasing surface ozone concentration on crop productivity in Asia; Prof. P.K. Jha (Nepal): Effects of pollution and climate change on crops and forests in Nepal; Dr. M. Iyngararasan (UNEP): Policy processes in Asia: The implementation of the Male Declaration in South Asia.

From India, there was a strong representation at the Workshop. The names of participants and titles of their papers are as follows:

Prof. Madhoolika Agrawal (BHU, Varanasi): (1) Current knowledge: Major approaches of air pollution research on plants in Asia, (2) Experimental work on agricultural crops (transect and field site studies); Dr. H.M. Behl (NBRI, Lucknow): (1) Air pollution impacts on biodiversity: Assessing the effects of landscaping remediation using bio-indicators, (2) Education, Networking and Information Dissemination; Prof. C.K. Varshney ( J.N.U., New Delhi): The effects of air pollution on Indian crop plants and trees; Dr. S.B. Agrawal (BHU, Varanasi): Experimental evidence on effects of air pollution on agricultural crops; Dr. Ram Boojh (CEE, Lucknow): Air quality and policy in Asia.

Dr. Ms. Lisa D. Emberson is Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute at York, Biology Dept., University of  York, York, Y0I0 S5YW, U. K.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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