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Air pollution damaging our food supply

It damages leaves, changes flowering patterns and acts as a barrier to pollinators.

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A bee pollinating a yellow flower in the garden
(Oakland Images via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Air pollution is preventing insects from sniffing out the crops and wildflowers that depend on them, according to new research.

Bees and butterflies pollinate plants when they go from flower to flower - boosting reproduction.

Rising levels of ozone have been interrupting them, impacting the survival of both fauna and flora.

The excess damages leaves, changes flowering patterns and acts as a barrier to pollinators finding blooms.

Lead author Professor Evgenios Agathokleous, of Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology in China, said: "There is much noise about the direct effects of agrochemicals on pollinators, a subject of profound societal attention.

"But it now emerges that ozone is a silent threat to pollinators and thus pollination. These impacts of ozone have long been missed."

Ozone can be both friend and foe. In the stratosphere, 7.5 miles above sea level, it forms naturally and helps protect against harmful sun rays.

exhaust pipe of car, note shallow depth of field
(Pedal to the Stock via Shutterstock)

But in the troposphere, the lowest region of the atmosphere, it damages Earth. The greenhouse gas is created by a photochemical reaction between volatile chemicals.

They are emitted by vegetation and commonly found in substances such as paint and aerosols - and the burning of fossil fuels.

Levels have been increasing because a warming climate is creating optimal conditions for it to thrive.

Prof Agathokleous said: "Ozone pollution can affect the timing and duration of flowering in such a way the occurrence of flowering is asynchronous to the activities of pollinators.

Scenic view of blossoming Almond tree in countryside with blue sky February in Vall d´alba Castellon Spain
Almond trees in California rely on pollinators. (Sun Shock via Shutterstock)

"It can also change the color of flowers, disrupting the visual signals to pollinators. Ozone pollution can also directly react with pollen, decreasing its quality, but also indirectly changing the amount of pollen."

The review in Trends in Ecology and Evolution also found ozone pollutes plants almost instantly - leaving injury signs of diverse hues and shapes and discoloring leaves.

When damaged, they have a hard time photosynthesizing and struggle to provide the plant with the energy it needs to grow.

Plants emit their own organic volatile compounds facilitating communication from one to another - and alerting pollinators to the presence of a waiting flower.

Ozone pollution appears to be disrupting these chemical signatures.

A field of lavender grown for aromatic oil in Europe. Beautiful background. Pollination period by bees. Selective focus. Close-up
A field of lavender, pollinated by bees. (Pedal to the Stock via Shutterstock)

Added Prof Agathokleous: "Changes in the composition of the volatile blends could also have severe implications to pollinators because they might not recognize host plants and their qualities in the same way they did in the past.

"Within plant tissues, ozone pollution could decrease the number of nutrients that are essential to insects, increase the abundance of chemicals that are harmful to insects ingesting them, and degrade the overall quality of plant tissues."

A recent scientific review of insect numbers around the world suggested that 40% of species were undergoing "dramatic rates of decline."

Bees, ants and beetles are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles.

According to the World Health Organisation air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths a year from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.

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