Helping To Feed the World with Nuclear Techniques

Helping To Feed the World with Nuclear Techniques At the IAEA 55th General Conference, the Division of Food and Agriculture distributed banana plantlets to conference participants in order to draw attention to their recent work in the field of plant breeding and genetics. Those who attended the giveaway had the opportunity to sit and talk directly with experts from the IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory to learn more about the important role of nuclear techniques for sustainable food security.

The Need for Global Food Security

IAEA’s Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory works with Member States to solve one of the most pressing issues of the century: how to feed the world. In today’s globalized world, with a steadily growing population and rapidly changing climates, ensuring that every mouth is fed becomes increasingly difficult. Developing countries face the biggest hurdles in supplying their citizens with a sustainable and reliable source of food stuff. With fragile agricultural infrastructure and technology, they must deal with unpredictable and hazardous weather patterns, variable harvests and exposure to pests, disease and drought. Mutation induction offers farmers in developing Member States the chance to address these challenges and feed their families.

Essentially, mutation induction is a nuclear technique that shortens the time and reduces the space needed for plant varieties to evolve. Normally, spontaneous mutations take place over extended periods of time and may lead to a species that is better adapted to its environment. Mutation induction refers to the speeding up of this naturally occurring process. A common misconception is that this technique is somehow related to the genetic modification of plants, often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If one can imagine Mother Nature tossing a pair of dice—with each die indicating a different genetic code—mutation induction is like convincing Her to repeat these tosses again and again until the best combination is found.

For example, over the past 100 000 000 years nature has produced 140 000 different species of rice. However, when it comes to global food security, we cannot afford to wait that long. Higher yielding, more sustainable, and more adaptable varieties of rice are needed to feed countries in the developing and developed world. Through mutation induction, farmers can produce crops capable of living up against the harsh realities of climate change.

The IAEA is committed to helping Member States adopt the technology needed to conduct mutation induction. It’s Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, acts as a think-tank and development centre by creating the tools and inputs necessary for Member State programmes. Through its coordinated research activities, the IAEA brings together developing and developed countries to implement the technologies in real life conditions and contribute to the capacity building of its Member States. Then, with adaptive research and development, new technologies can be refined and optimized before reaching the hands of the farmers.

Crop Stories from Around the World

→ In Peru, the IAEA helped to develop a variety of barley that thrives at altitudes as high as 5000 m. At this height, pesticides are scarcely used because diseases are unable to develop to their full potential and thus cannot affect crop production. As a result, from 2003-2009 Peru doubled their barely exports and the Andean Indios were given an income alternative, allowing them to produce a surplus they could sell.

→ The IAEA’s plant breeding and genetics laboratory assisted Vietnam in producing a rice variety with a much shorter flowering period. This allowed farmers to harvest three times per year instead of twice, a 33% increase in production. They were also able to produce salt tolerant rice at export quality worth an additional US $300 million per year.

→ In Sri Lanka, the IAEA introduced rice subsistence farmers to banana micro-propagation. With this high value product, many women were able to start their own family businesses producing banana seedling plantlets, selling bananas and use their disposable income to fund transport into the cities. In turn, their families could export other products, such as rice, leading to further increases in income. Finally, an industrialist took note and installed a banana chip factory in the region.

Challenges Ahead

Producing crops that are better adapted to their environment becomes difficult when the climate is constantly in flux. With the rising variability of climate patterns, the extremes are getting extremer and the conditions of the future grow more and more unpredictable. Knowing this, the IAEA works very close with farmers and breeders in developing countries in order to share knowledge and resources both ways.

While the IAEA laboratories may have the technology, it is the farmers and breeders of the Member States that have the best understanding of their land and the needs of their communities.