It might sound strange, but the news is that scientists have been giving assurances, repeatedly, that using nuclear applications in agriculture and food production are giving a major boost to food security. How does this work?
To start with, nuclear applications in agriculture rely on the use of isotopes and radiation techniques to combat pests and diseases, increase crop production, protect land and water resources, and ensure food safety and authenticity, as well as increase livestock production.
This is how the United Nations food and agriculture organization and the UN atomic energy agency explain this technique, highlighting that some of the most innovative ways being used to improve agricultural practices involve nuclear technology.
Both the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been expanding knowledge and enhancing capacity in this area for more than 50 years.
One reason is that the global climate is changing, altering
the frequency and intensity
of extreme weather events and seriously impacting food security.
Rising sea levels, ecosystem stress, glacier melt and altering river systems exacerbate the vulnerability of particular social groups and economic sectors, FAO reports, adding that it is also altering the distribution, incidence and intensity of terrestrial and aquatic animal and plant pests and diseases.
“Most developing countries are subject to an enormous disease burden, and both developing and developed countries could be affected by new and emerging diseases. Making global agricultural systems resilient to these changes is critical for efforts to achieve global food security.”
The two UN agencies have been assisting countries to develop capacity to optimise their use of nuclear techniques to confront and mitigate impacts of climate change on agricultural systems and food security — nuclear techniques that can increase crop tolerance to drought, salinity or pests; reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and increase carbon sequestration from agricultural systems.
They can also track and control insect pests and animal diseases; adjust livestock feed to reduce emissions and improve breeding; optimise natural resource management through isotopic tracking of soil, water and crops; and provide information essential for assessing ecosystem changes and for forecast modelling.
The results of “using nuclear sciences to feed the world” have led to some major success stories, they say.
The FAO provides several examples of how nuclear technology is improving food and agriculture:
ANIMAL PRODUCTIVITY AND HEALTH
Nuclear and related technologies have made a difference in improving livestock productivity, controlling and preventing trans-boundary animal diseases and protecting the environment.
For example, Cameroon uses nuclear technology effectively in its livestock reproduction, breeding, artificial insemination and disease control programmes. By crossing two local cattle breeds, farmers there have tripled their milk yields — from 500 to 1,500 litres — and generated an additional US$110 million (RM457.8 million) in farmer income per year.
Another programme has dramatically curbed the incidence of Brucellosis, a highly contagious zoonosis, or disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans who drink unpasteurised milk or eat undercooked meat from infected animals.
SOILS AND WATER
Nuclear techniques are now used in many countries to help maintain healthy soil and water systems, which are paramount in ensuring food security for the growing global population.
The nuclear-derived sterile insect technique (SIT) involves mass-rearing and sterilizing male insects before releasing them over pest-infested areas.
The technique suppresses and gradually eliminates established pests or prevents the introduction of invasive species — and is safer for the environment and human health than conventional pesticides.
The governments of Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States have been using SIT for decades to prevent the northward spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly (medfly) into Mexico and the US.
Food safety and quality control systems need to be robust at the national level to facilitate the trade of safe food and to combat food fraud, which costs the food industry up to US$15 billion annually.
Nuclear techniques help national authorities in more than 50 countries to improve food safety by addressing the problem of harmful residues and contaminants in food products and to improve their traceability systems with stable isotope analysis.
Radioactivity is present in everything that surrounds us – from the sun to soil. But, should a nuclear incident or emergency happen, an understanding of the movement of radioactivity through the environment becomes crucial to prevent or alleviate the impact on agricultural products.
During the 2011 nuclear emergency in Japan, FAO and IAEA compiled an extensive and authoritative database on food contaminated with radioisotopes. This database supported the information exchange and facilitated appropriate follow-up actions to protect consumers, the agri-food sector and the world at large.
The agricultural sector uses nuclear and related technologies to adapt to climate change by increasing resource-use efficiency and productivity in a sustainable way.
The nuclear-derived crossbreeding programme in Burkina Faso is a great example of helping farmers to breed more productively and climate-resistant animals. It is underpinned by genetic evaluations in four national laboratories, with scientists also able to use associated technology to produce a lick feed that provides the bigger, more productive livestock with the nutrients they need.
Crop-breeding programmes use nuclear technology to help vulnerable countries ensure food security, adapt to climate change and even to tackle seasonal famine. New mutant crop varieties shorten the growing process, thereby allowing farmers to plant additional crops during the growing season.
In recent years, farmers in northern Bangladesh have been using a fast-maturing mutant rice variety called Binadhan-7. This variety ripens 30 days quicker than normal rice, giving farmers time to harvest other crops and vegetables within the same season.