New research indicates that reductions in the kind of human-generated air pollution that causes global warming could create unexpected agricultural benefits in India, one of the world’s poorest regions.

Rice harvests increased dramatically in India during the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, making the country self-sufficient in rice, which is its staple food. But harvest growth has slowed since the mid-1980s, raising concerns that food shortages could recur in this densely populated and poor nation.

Several explanations have been proposed for this slowdown, but until now, none took into account the complex interactions of two pollution-related sources of climate change: soot and other fine particles in the air, which form aerosol clouds, and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

When researchers examined the combined effects of atmospheric brown clouds and greenhouse gases on growing conditions, they found that the combined effects were greater after the mid-1980s than before, coinciding with the slowdown in harvest growth. They think that harvests would have been 20 to 25% higher during some years in the 1990s if the negative climate impacts had not occurred. This is one of the first direct pieces of evidence showing how global warming will impact agriculture.

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