40 Years of the IAEA
- by Lothar Wedekind, based on reports by James Dargie, Royal Kastens, David Kinley, Ali Boussaha, and Paulo Barretto

By sheer numbers alone, the challenge is daunting. About 840 million people - one of every five women, men, and children in developing countries - are hungry and malnourished. Less than thirty years from now, an estimated 680 million more hungry people, mostly in our poorest societies, will live among the world's projected population of 8.3 billion. The bottom line: the food we produce has to be better conserved and distributed, or otherwise food production has to grow by more than seventy-five percent between now and then.

Solving food problems is not easy, and all the tools and knowledge at our disposal are needed. Over the past decades, important strides have put more food in the hands of people. Food production has grown, in some countries dramatically. Overall, each of today's 5.8 billion people has more food than people had twenty years ago, when the world's population was four billion. Yet clearly much more needs to be done.

The IAEA's work over the past decade, jointly with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has faced different sets of challenges. In some countries, specialists have zeroed in on technically helping them to protect and preserve the food resources they have, and prevent losses of indigenous crops and livestock to pests or disease. Elsewhere, the target has been on ways for enriching harvests through plant, soil, water, and other food-related research. (See report.) Countries have attained significant results in the process.

  • Soil scientists in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are applying nature's ways to overcome problems of crop nutrition. Over the past decades, they further demonstrated the effectiveness of using natural "biofertilizers" to increase crop yields. Their work involves fertilizers produced by rhizobia bacteria. Detailed studies to analyze crop nutrients and growth are done using isotope techniques. When rhizobia treatments are applied to seeds of suitable pulse crops, such as peas or soybeans, they stimulate the production of root nodules that can biologically produce nitrogen from the air and stimulate plant growth. Zimbabwe field trials have shown that rhizobium biofertilizers more than doubled soybean yields, out-performing crop fields treated with expensive ammonium nitrate fertilizer. In Bangladesh, studies found that the biofertilizers typically can increase the harvest of grain legumes by about one-fourth. Larger scale production, now planned through a demonstration plant, could lead to potential savings of about US $30 million a year by reducing the country's need to import grain and chemical fertilizers. The IAEA has launched separate model projects in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to further support national efforts.

    In Asia overall, grain legume production has grown by an average of twenty-five percent using biofertilizers. Pakistan recently introduced one for rice estimated to bring benefits of $133 million annually in terms of higher yields and lower use of chemical fertilizers.

    In Romania, farmers have benefitted from other types of isotope studies, ones directed at more efficient use of chemical fertilizers. By tailoring field applications of nitrogen and phosphorus to the studies' results, farmers achieved yield increases for maize worth $217 million a year - and saved $60 million in fertilizer costs.

  • In Mexico, the USA, Libya, Tanzania's Zanzibar Island, Chile, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, project teams have successfully battled insect pests threatening crops and livestock. A key common tool of the campaigns: the radiation-based technology known as the sterile insect technique (SIT), a biological method developed at the Agency's laboratories and transferred to the field by FAO/IAEA technical staff and scientists. The combined value to agricultural economies from the use of SIT in these campaigns exceeds $3.5 billion per year.

    Most benefits accrue from campaigns in the USA and Mexico, where the New World Screwworm, a fly which attacks livestock, was eradicated in 1991. The pest found its way to Libya in the early 1990s, and was eradicated there in 1992 at a cost of $60 million. The timely campaign saved North Africa's agricultural economies fifty times as much as it cost, in terms of losses avoided and benefits gained. Another devastating insect, the Medfly, was eradicated in Chile, netting the country benefits valued at $500 million per year, mainly through access to Asian export markets.

    In Zanzibar - where the battle is against tsetse flies and the disease trypanosomosis it can inflict - the families of Jozani village measure benefits of eradication in other ways. Before the campaign about ten years ago, they simply saw no cattle around because of the constant threat of disease. Today the community rears more than 300 head of cattle for meat, milk, and hides. An IAEA-supported project is now providing technical assistance for SIT's use against the tsetse fly on mainland Africa, starting in Ethiopia.

  • Elsewhere throughout Africa, the challenge is to free livestock from another serious health threat, rinderpest or "cattle plague". When the regional eradication campaign began in the late 1980s, the disease was found in fourteen African countries. Today it is restricted to relatively isolated pockets, where IAEA-supported animal vaccination programmes and disease monitoring are being done. Such high levels of immunity have been achieved that it's been possible to stop mass vaccination, saving several hundred million dollars a year. Some of the twelve countries in an IAEA project have or will soon make international declarations of freedom from rinderpest. Once all do likewise, Africa could realize economic benefits to agriculture of over $900 million a year.

  • In China and Peru, a common challenge is to boost crop production. Plant breeders are using mutation techniques to help meet specific needs. In China, among the latest achievements stand eleven new rice varieties. They were planted in fields of a million hectares over six provinces. Rice production there grew by 380,000 metric tonnes, at an estimated value to farmers of more than $50 million. In the oxygen-thin Peruvian highlands, new varieties of cereal signal harvests even under a harsh and variable climate. Seeds of a mutant variety of barley Peru produced now are being distributed to 200,000 people resettling Andean farms. Within three years, they should be growing on about 40,000 hectares of highland.

Field Photo These achievements show the Agency's multi-dimensional roles and the practical benefits that nuclear tools can help countries attain. Results are closely linked to team efforts typically engaging expertise and resources among IAEA partner organizations and scientific networks, spearheaded by the Agency's Seibersdorf Laboratories through its joint FAO/IAEA laboratory and other branches. The transfer channels extend to three regional arrangements for countries in Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, and Africa, where twenty-one countries have joined since 1990. A key is research, and over the past decade, the IAEA directly financed research and demonstration activities valued at over $43 million. Nearly 2000 research contracts and agreements were put in place in some ninety industrialized and developing countries, in agriculture, hydrology, and a range of other fields.
Photo: Green fields in Zimbabwe. (Credit: Kinley/IAEA)

Over the past thirty years, global food production has grown about eighty percent, serving more of the world. Over the next thirty, projections are it needs to grow another seventy-five percent. Just to keep up.