How air pollution is holding down wheat yields in India

Since the start of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, India has tripled its wheat yield. Yet air pollution also rose steadily during this period, with deleterious impacts on crops. In a recent paper drawing on published literature, I estimate that the increases in ozone and aerosol pollutants across the northern Indian wheat belt have held yield growth back by about one third.

In other words, India, which produced a record wheat harvest of 100 million tons in 2018-19, could have produced 40 million tons more if the atmosphere were as clean as it was 50 years ago.

India doesn’t really need that additional wheat; it is already close to self-sufficiency. But these findings suggest the economic constraints air pollution imposes; a clean atmosphere would have permitted many Indian farmers to replace wheat with more renumerative crops and to be less dependent on government subsidies, to the benefit of the overall economy.

Photo Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT