Air pollution: the growing threat to our food supply

Though it has not received much attention until now, air pollution has become a huge challenge around the globe, with significant implications for human life.

The last few years have been hard on Saeed Jafat and his family. The 45-year-old maize farmer has no irrigation system or underground water supply.

He depends entirely on the once-a-year rainy season to keep his crops growing. Lately, the rain has come months late. Two years ago, he faced a new challenge. When the rain finally came, it was acid. His crops were destroyed. 

“To be honest with you, I almost gave up on the profession,” said Jafat. “A rough estimation of what I invest in my 15 acres of maize farm from ploughing to harvesting is more than GHC30,000 [US$2,600]. This farming business makes me depressed and the rise of air pollution is just wasting away the hard work I’m putting in for my wife and two children.”

Whatever you think of air pollution, the truth is harder to swallow.

Though it has not received much attention until now, air pollution has become a huge challenge around the globe, with significant implications for human life. It poses a grave threat to economies and societies worldwide, making humans sick and exacerbating climate change. But interviews with a range of experts show air pollution poses another threat to Ghanaians: to our food supply. 

A 2021 policy brief by the United Nations Development Programme in Ghana found that air pollution is the greatest environmental and public health risk in the country.

Burning solid biomass, coal, and kerosene inside homes, vehicles, and factories causes 28,000 premature deaths in Ghana each year. But the risk to the food supply could be even more catastrophic.

The World Bank predicts the yield of yam, one of Ghana’s staple foods, will drop by nearly 70 percent by 2080 because of climate change and air pollution. Maize and rice yields will also decline by up to 25 percent by 2050 in most regions of Ghana. That will increase the price of food and risks food insecurity for parts of the country.

While air pollution is a well-known environmental problem, its relationship with agriculture is more nuanced. The acid rain suffered by Jafat is one of the dangers. Caused when compounds such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are released into the atmosphere, mixing with water, oxygen, and other elements to form acidic pollutants, it can destroy crops overnight. When Jafat’s neighbours burn their waste they don’t know it will end up poisoning his crops. 

A Cascade of Impacts on Agriculture

But air pollution doesn’t just make the rain acidic. It can actually change rainfall patterns themselves. The regularity of rainfall in specific seasons was once a dependable rhythm that guided farmers’ planting and harvesting schedules. In recent years, irregular rainfall patterns have become the new norm.

While climate change, resulting from human activities such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and the burning of fossil fuels, is the prime cause, air pollution has an impact too. 

“Air pollution, primarily from industrial activities and biomass burning, has detrimental effects on weather patterns,” said Felicity Ahafianyo, the head of forecasting at the Ghana Meteorological Agency. “Pollutants and aerosols released into the atmosphere can modify cloud formation and alter precipitation patterns.” 

The problem has become a crisis, according to Ibrahim Tuzee Abdul Rahim, co-founder and head of climate and environmental governance at Rescue Mission International Agency. “I can attest that the change in rainfall patterns is our biggest problem as a rescue agency for our farmers.”

For farmers, the results are heartbreaking. 

“One of my greatest joys in life is coming to see my yields in perfect shape,” said Jafat. “I can’t begin to tell you how that feels, but for the past few years, I haven’t felt such joy.”

Livestock are endangered too, according to Arnold Gyimah, director at JFAMCO abattoir in Madina, who said prolonged exposure to air pollution weakens the immune systems of his farm animals. 

“Weakened immunity makes them more susceptible to diseases and infections, which can be a significant concern for livestock health,” Gyimah said. “The economic impact of air pollution on farms can be substantial, leading to increased veterinary costs, lower yields, and financial losses.”

Ghana has historically relied heavily on agriculture, which currently accounts for 19.71% of the economy. Rain-fed farming is the backbone of the sector. In recent decades, the government has pushed the economy away from being agricultural-led to a more diversified service- and industry-focus. Still agriculture is the country’s biggest employer accounting for four in every five Ghanaian jobs.

As the amount of toxins in the air increases that puts many, many Ghanaians at risk and by extension, the whole economy. 

“Prolonged exposure to pollutants can lead to respiratory problems like chronic bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases in farmers and their families. Air pollution can also exacerbate existing respiratory conditions,” according to Dr Alexander Kwarteng, an immunologist with the Department of Biochemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. “Studies have shown that exposure to air pollution is associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression. These psychological impacts can further affect the overall well-being and productivity of farmers.”

Pollution increases the vulnerability of the agricultural sector to climate change and other shocks by degrading natural resources, biodiversity and the ecosystem services that support agriculture. For example, pollution can reduce soil fertility, water availability and quality, and ease of pollination. 

Pollution also increases the costs of food production and distribution by increasing the use of inputs such as fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation water, energy, labour, health care and transportation. Farmers may need to apply more fertiliser or pesticides to maintain crop yields or to protect crops from pests and diseases that are exacerbated by pollution, for example. They may also need to invest in irrigation systems or water treatment facilities to cope with water scarcity or contamination caused by pollution.  

“Pollution can also increase the cost of distribution by damaging infrastructure, equipment and human health,” agricultural economist Philemon Tetteh-Addo tells me. “Pollution can also affect the competitiveness of the agricultural industry by lowering the quality and safety of food products, which can reduce consumer demand and market access. Pollution can also increase energy consumption during food production and distribution by requiring more mechanisation, refrigeration, processing, packaging or transportation. These costs are ultimately borne by consumers who pay higher prices for food or by taxpayers who subsidise food production or environmental protection efforts.”

Protecting Workers 

A growing number of farmers are finding ways to help their workers avoid the worst impacts of air pollution. 

Nana Sarpong Siriboe, Ghana’s 2022 National Best Farmer, said he is well aware of the environmental factors that affect his farming, which spans over 1,000 acres and incorporates a mixture of livestock and crops, from oil palm and maize to cocoa and cashews. Air pollution from burning and other farming activities is just one danger he must mitigate along with soil erosion, drought, floods and bushfires. He plants cover crops and ploughs across the slope of the fields and he protects his biggest investment: his workers. 

“I protect my farm and workers a lot with protective gear, such as wellington boots, face masks, gloves, goggles, and hats for all the workers,” said Siriboe. “And all empty agrochemical containers are recycled.”

Dr Kwarteng also recommended “improving ventilation in agricultural settings, reducing the use of pollutants in farming practices, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices that minimize air pollution.”  

Clean agriculture

A new approach gaining appeal around the world is so-called “Regenerative Farming”. Regenerative agriculture reduces the use of water and other inputs in order to prevent land degradation and deforestation. According to the organisation Green America, regenerative agriculture harnesses the power of photosynthesis in plants to sequester carbon in the soil.

The ability to do this can improve soil health, crop yields, water resilience, and nutrient density. Proponents claims Regenerative agriculture can actually help reverse climate change by drawing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 

Ghana’s president Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, committed to “swift, decisive, and inclusive action” to protect the environment at last month’s 66th Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in Accra. 

“Protecting the environment is not an option, the president said. “It is an ethical imperative, which requires a profound shift in our collective mindset and behaviour.” 

Activists and the growing legion of Ghanaians who have been harmed by air pollution promise to hold the government to that promise.

They say it is imperative that governments, industries and individuals come together to prioritise sustainable practices and cleaner technologies to ensure a healthy, stable food supply and the health and wellbeing of humans across the world. 


This story was a collaboration between Asaase Radio and New Narratives. Funding was provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.