Nuclear crop sought to address hunger


Published on 01/12/2008

By John Oyuke

Faced with a food crisis threatening to drive millions of people into hunger, pressure is mounting for use of nuclear technologies to improve crop productivity.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s centre of cooperation in the nuclear field, is spearheading the campaign to revive nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger.

“The global nature of the food crisis is unprecedented. Families all around the world are struggling to feed themselves,” says Mr Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General, IAEA.

“To provide sustainable, long-term solutions, we must make use of all available resources. Selecting the crops that are better able to feed us is one of humankind’s oldest sciences. But we’ve neglected to give it the support and investment it requires,” he says.

Mutation induction, IAEA scientists use the technique, in use since 1920s, to produce improved high-yielding plants that adapt to harsh climate conditions such as drought or flood, or that are resistant to certain diseases and insect pests.

According to Mr Pierre Lagoda of the Joint Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, Vienna, induced mutation is an important part of the solution to the world’s food crisis.

“We are not the only solution to the world’s food crisis but we offer a tool, a very efficient tool, to the global agricultural community to broaden the adaptability of crops in the face of climate change, rising prices, and soils that lack fertility or have other major problems,” he says in a statement.

Japan

ElBaradei says in a statement scheduled to be released worldwide today that the agency is committed to helping countries apply nuclear science and technology in ways that can help end hunger and achieve goals of food security.

He said in partnership with the Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), has been assisting its member states to produce more, better and safer food and enhanced agricultural output using nuclear technology.

Already, more than 3000 crop varieties of some 170 different plant species have been released through the direct intervention of the IAEA: they include barley that grows at 5000 meters (16,400 ft) and rice that thrives in saline soil.

In Japan alone, the Institute of Radiation Breeding (IRB) calculates that crops developed using mutation induction generated economic returns of nearly US$ 62 billion against US$ 69 million invested during the period 1959 – 2001. That translates into a remarkable 900-fold return on investment.

“For decades most of the developed world has lived on readily available, cheap and diversified food, enjoying plentiful amounts but seemingly with little or no need to invest in agriculture,” says Qu Liang, Director of the FAO/IAEA Joint Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

“Food crises were always dealt with by relief organisations, through food aid and donations, and disappeared as quickly from the headlines as they appeared but now, with the earth’s resources dwindling, we are reaping the results of decades of under-investment in agriculture,” Liang adds.

“The year 2008 was a wake-up call to the realization that world food production was unsustainable and vulnerable to factors such as climate change and energy demands,” says IAEA Deputy Director General, Mr Werner Burkart, who heads the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Njoro-BW1

Through its Technical Cooperation Programme, the IAEA provides the tool and the expertise, but national agricultural research systems and plant breeders take the next step, selecting and crossbreeding plants to achieve the desired result.

Enumerating case studies where the induced mutation technology has succeeded, IAEA points at Kenya’s hot and barren dry lands, which it says were long considered unfit for agriculture, serving at best as a grazing area for wild animals and livestock.

The agency adds that today the landscape is more picturesque and productive, lined with fields of golden wheat yielding precious grain for the country’s farms and families.

The wheat is a new variety—high yielding and resistant to drought. It was developed at Kenya’s Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) using induced mutation technology with the help of IAEA.

Working closely with the IAEA through a number of projects and under a regional programme, African Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology Kari successfully released its first mutant wheat variety in 2001.

Called Njoro-BW1, the wheat was bred to be tolerant to drought but it is also high yielding, produces excellent baking flour and has good resistance to wheat rust, a virulent strain of fungus threatening the region’s farmlands.

The IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (Fao) formed the Joint Division in 1964 in the belief that Member States were best served if the complementary strengths and activities of the two international organisations were properly applied in partnership.

The Joint Division works with other food agencies and plant breeding centres, universities and regional agricultural groups, providing induced mutation expertise and support where needed.

According to the statement, at the FAO/IAEA Joint Division Plant Breeding Unit in Seibersdorf, Austria, research is currently focused on three major tropical crops — rice, banana and cassava — all key to the developing world and, in particular, to Africa.

Chikelu Mba, who heads the unit, estimates that some 100 countries currently use induced mutation technology to improve crop production.

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