Ozone air pollution is adding an additional challenge to agricultural production in Asia on top of climate change, poverty, malnourishment and rising food demand. Ozone is a secondary air pollutant formed in the troposphere when oxides such as nitrogen (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted from burning fossil fuels in transport, industry and power generation, undergo photochemical reactions under sunny conditions. However, ozone precursors are often carried downwind of the emission sources, where meteorological conditions favour ozone formation (higher temperature and sunshine). As a result, ozone concentrations can often be higher downwind of urban and industrial centres and affect agriculture sites.

Ozone is one of the most damaging toxic pollutants to plants, creating a strong oxidative stress that leads to a reduction in plant biomass and yield. It is found to be responsible for causing significant damage to agricultural crops worldwide, and poses a major threat to food production systems in countries facing high levels of air pollution. In India for instance, ozone air pollution has led to an estimated 14% and 6% of wheat and rice yield losses respectively, affecting food and nutrition security in both rural and urban settings. This trend of crop losses is predicted to increase until 2030 especially in South and East Asia unless emissions of ozone precursors (NOx and VOCs) are reduced significantly.

Women harvesting rice paddy in India. Photo: McKay Savage (Wikimedia Commons).

Gendered impact of crop losses in India

Crop losses have far reaching socio-economic impacts to different groups of the society. In India, it is shown to commonly lead to changes in food prices, farm incomes, savings and debts, consumer behaviours, nutritional access and increasing workloads. The largest impacts are almost always on the most vulnerable groups including , both in rural and urban settings, landless farmers and economically less well-off since food scarcity results in an overall reduction of calorie intake.

The management of food and nutrition reaches deep within the household where family members are not all equally affected by the access to nutritious food. In times of food insecurity, women bear the largest burden across socio-economic and geographic contexts due to their inferior social position and unequal intra-household food division that favors men. While this inequality is present at all times, it increases in times of scarcity as women are more likely to go hungry and receive less nutritious food while favoring males, the elderly and children in their families. Impacts however, vary from woman to woman depending on factors such as marital status, age and socio-economic class and whether the household is farming, net food buyer and/or urban consumer.

Gendered impacts of crop losses can easily be overlooked as women’s work within the agricultural sector tend to be informal and often unrecognised. Recent estimates however, show that a larger share of the rural women, i.e. 79 % are engaged in agricultural activities as opposed to 63 % of the rural men, and is often referred to as the ‘feminization’ of agriculture. While this may  increase women’s decision-making power, space and income, it does not always result in better welfare. Thus, women farmers are often disproportionally affected when harvests fail as their ascribed responsibility to ensure family wellbeing often lead to increasing workloads both on- and off farms as well as in the domestic sphere.

Women-headed households are especially hard hit from food price increases as they tend to spend a larger proportion of their income on food than male-headed households due to a generally lower income. This is especially true for less well-off households that may experience labour shortfalls despite control of resources concurrently while being burdened with multiple obligations of care and insecure livelihoods. Women heads in well-off households are often more empowered and may have access to hired labour as well as more control over resources and better access to decision-making arenas. Households where women have more control over spending are generally thought to be more secure in food security and health. But this perception must be handled with care as it implicitly reinforces women’s domestic burdens and responsibilities  and more broadly, the feminization of poverty.

Breaking siloes

Gender inequality is closely linked to the impacts on rural agriculture from ozone air pollution. Air pollution plays into a complex system of social structures and power dynamics that often exacerbates existing inequalities.

SEI’s Gender and Social Equality Program is currently developing methods for air-pollution risk assessments for crop losses in India and other countries in Asia that includes socioeconomic and gendered implications. This approach takes a step further to the air pollution induced crop loss assessment studies and integrates the demand and supply economics to investigate the wider consequences on producer and consumer welfare. The study also intends to bridge the gap between the approaches from natural and social science perspectives when investigating the questions of linkages between agriculture, environment, society and gender issues.

A conversation with Divya Pandey and Lia Emberson on the impacts of air pollution on agriculture for producers and consumers from socio-economic classes. Video: Howard Cambridge, SEI York / YouTube.