Nuclear Science for Food Security

2008/20

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) today called for increased investment in a plant breeding technique that could bolster efforts aimed at pulling millions of people out of the hunger trap. IAEA scientists use radiation 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. Called mutation induction, the technique is safe, proven and cost-effective. It has been in use since the 1920s.

"The global nature of the food crisis is unprecedented. Families all around the world are struggling to feed themselves," says Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the 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 for universal application. The IAEA is urging a revival of nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger."

For decades the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has assisted its Member States to produce more, better and safer food. In plant breeding and genetics, its expertise is helping countries around the world to achieve 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. These varieties provide much needed food as well as millions of dollars in economic benefits for farmers and consumers, especially in developing countries. But with increased investment and broader application, the technology could positively impact the health and livelihood of even greater numbers of people. And as world hunger grows, the need has never been more urgent.

A Global Food Crisis

This year, shortages combined with increasing demand have created a new global food crisis. At its root: adverse weather conditions linked to climate change, the diversion of land for the cultivation of bio-fuels, and a tendency to live on food credit.

"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 organizations, through food aid and donations, and disappeared as quickly from the headlines as they appeared. Now, with the earth´'s resources dwindling, we are reaping the results of decades of under-investment in agriculture."

Today, food shortages and sky-rocketing prices are pushing millions of people deeper into the poverty and hunger cycle. As a result, social unrest and food protests, some violent, have flared in countries around the globe. As usual, the poor are hardest hit by rising prices. In addition to the more than 850 million people worldwide who were already going hungry, millions more now are being pushed below the one-dollar-a-day poverty level. This is undermining progress not only towards meeting the most important of the eight Millennium Development Goals, that of cutting hunger and poverty by half by 2015, but also targets on education, child and maternal mortality reduction, and containing the spread of major diseases.

"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 Werner Burkart, who heads the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. "The big issues are interlinked. With energy increasingly being produced from corn, soya and other crops, there is growing competition between food, feed and fuel for soil, water and human and financial resources."

Unmasking Hidden Potential in Plants

Nature provides every species with the potential to develop many different characteristics - for example, the height of a plant, its yield, its susceptibility or resistance to disease. All of these possibilities are written into a plant´s blueprint, its genome, but only a few are expressed. Over a long period of time, a plant can adapt itself to different conditions through a process of spontaneous mutation and natural selection. It was the survival of certain edible plants amid adverse conditions that first attracted hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. They selected the robust, easy to harvest wild grains, consumed the crop and saved the seeds for planting the following year. Modern plant breeding was born.

"We call spontaneous mutation the motor of evolution," says Pierre Lagoda, Head of the FAO/IAEA Joint Division´s Plant Breeding and Genetics Section. "If we could live millions of years and survey billions of hectares (acres) of land with 100 percent precision, we would find variants with all of the traits we´re looking for but which have mutated naturally." "But we can´t wait millions of years to find the plants that are necessary now, if we want to feed the world. So with induced mutation, we are actively speeding up the process."

Today, scientists apply mutagens - for example, gamma rays or chemicals - to accelerate the process. Unlike genetic modification, which introduces new material into a plant´s genetic makeup, induced mutation simply accelerates the natural process of spontaneous changes occurring in plants. Exposure to radiation changes a plant´s blueprint at one position in the genetic code, creating a variant that is different from the parent plant. Huge numbers of mutants are produced in the search for desired traits - perhaps a resistance to certain diseases or pests, or an ability to thrive in saline soil or drought conditions. Those that seem promising are selected and turned over to plant breeders who work to incorporate that quality, perhaps by cross-breeding, into indigenous plants.

"But we´re not producing anything that is not produced by nature itself," says Pierre Lagoda. "For example, up until now nature has produced 140,000 distinct varieties of rice all with different characteristics - there´s rice that is tall, rice that grows in water or dry climates or in salty soil. All of these expressions of the potential of rice are in the rice itself."

An Effective Tool

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," says Pierre Lagoda.

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 cross-breeding plants to achieve the desired result. Plant breeding can be done in several ways. The classical way can take seven to ten years. A breeder looking for pest resistance, for example, might find the characteristic in a wild variety that has poor quality and yield. This will be crossed with a plant that does have good quality and yield, and any offspring combining the desired traits will then be selected and propagated. Hybrids, the product of crosses, are only as good as the source parents.

With many decades of monocultures, the variations amongst candidate parents have become very narrow. This endangers food security as resistance to yet latent biotypes of pests and diseases and extreme weather conditions may have become severely eroded. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly difficult to prospect for plant genetic resources across national boundaries. The solution to both bottlenecks is to artificially induce the variations that plant breeders so obviously need.

Mutation induction produces millions of variants. Breeders then have to screen for the desired traits and crossbreed. Nature can help this process. If improved varieties are planted in a diseased field, the survivors will be the resistant ones. Because fewer pesticides are needed for disease and insect resistant crops, they are environmentally friendly and reduce the expenses of poor farmers. But this safe, proven technology still faces some resistance. One reason is public concern surrounding words like radiation and mutation.

"I understand that people are suspicious of these technologies, but in our case it´s important to understand that in plant breeding we´re not producing anything that´s not produced by nature itself," says Pierre Lagoda. "There is no residual radiation left in a plant after mutation induction."

A Strong Case for Induced Mutation

Mutation induction technology is a powerful tool to help fight the food crisis on a sustainable level. Already it has yielded impressive results, providing food security and marked economic gain for a growing list of countries around the world. 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, and this in the public sector.

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Last update: 18 November 2014