We need to think about OZONE again! – We’ve warned about food shortages before, but now there’s a new reason crops are being damaged: ozone. Global warming, bee deaths, droughts and fuel prices are just a few reasons for the current global food crisis that is making headlines around the world. Rising levels of ozone in the atmosphere from vehicle emissions are also part of the problem, lowering the yield of important food crops, such as wheat and soybeans.
Researcher William Manning says, “Plants are much more sensitive to ozone than people, and a slight increase in exposure can have a large impact on their productivity. The new ozone standard set by the EPA in March 2008 is based on protecting human health, and may not be strict enough to protect plants.” Manning served on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee for the EPA in 1997 when the previous air quality standard for ozone was developed.
According to Manning, emission controls on cars have been successful in reducing short periods of high ozone levels called peaks, but average concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere throughout the year, called the background level, is increasing as polluted air masses from Asia travel to the US and then on to Europe. Background levels are now between 20 and 45 parts per billion in Europe and the United States, and are expected to increase to between 42 and 84 parts per billion by 2100.
Additional research in the Yangtze Valley, which accounts for nearly half of China’s crop production, showed that wheat was more sensitive to ozone than rice. “Plants vary widely in their sensitivity to ozone, and varieties of the same species can react differently,” says Manning. “Some of the most sensitive plant species are from the legume and cabbage families, which include radishes, broccoli and soybeans.”
This summer, Manning will be investigating the effects of ozone on a variety of plants in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, where ozone levels are often above the EPA standard as pollution from New York City and Washington, D.C. moves northward during the day. Plants will be grown in open fields, and some will be treated with a compound that blocks the effects of ozone. If the treated plants are healthier than the untreated group, then ozone will be the cause.
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