Atoms for Food

Vienna, Austria

Werner Burkart IAEA Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications

Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary-General, Ministers, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, I would like to thank you, Minister Moratinos, and the Organizing Committee of this High Level Meeting on Food Security, for the opportunity to highlight key areas where the IAEA is helping to alleviate the Global Food Crisis.

Some of you may be asking yourselves - why the IAEA? What are they doing here? The Agency, prominent as it may be in the media, is largely associated in the public mind with weapons of mass destruction and questions of nuclear energy, not with food. After all, the guiding slogan in our banner reads Atoms for Peace.

True, verifying that countries are not secretly building nuclear weapons and helping to ensure that nuclear power plants run safely are indeed important parts of our work. But our "Atoms for Peace" mandate has, from the beginning, been much wider than that. Our main objective, as stated in our Statute, is to "accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world". And ever since the Agency was founded in 1957, it has taken that second part of its mandate - health and prosperity - as seriously as the first.

Our Member States have recognised that there can be no peace without prosperity, and no prosperity without peace, and that you cannot have either of these without development.

Applications of nuclear science and technology have much to contribute in improving the quality and variety of foods and in boosting crop and livestock production. The IAEA has an extensive technical cooperation programme in around 100 countries, with a strong focus on using nuclear techniques in areas such as agricultural productivity, animal health and food safety.

Much of the IAEA┬┤s work has been carried out through a partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which was first established in 1964. The organisations founded what they called a Joint Division for Food and Agriculture. The Joint Division pioneered the use of nuclear techniques to make food crops more resistant to disease, to boost crop yields and to combat pests and animal diseases.

In Africa, for example, technical support from the Joint Division has helped 24 countries to eradicate the deadly cattle disease rinderpest. Our work in combating the fruit fly in Latin America has created a large area free of this pest, stretching from Chile into southern Peru and all the way north to Guatemala. In Kenya, a variety of wheat introduced by the Agency is yielding 11% more, under drought conditions, than the best varieties available until now. Uganda now exports beef to Europe thanks to techniques promoted by the Agency.

Many countries use a technique called isotope hydrology to establish how much drinking water there is under their feet and how long it will last them. Use of the sterile insect technique can protect crops, livestock and humans from major pests and diseases borne by insects, such as the tsetse fly or the Mediterranean fruit fly.

The list is long and this is just a sample. The work of the IAEA-FAO Joint Division has been an excellent example of what the UN family now calls Delivering as One - since long before the term was invented. Requests for assistance from our Member States make it clear that the IAEA and its partners will continue to play a vital role in the coming years in the area of food security.

Continued investment in research and development is vital if the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved. We must harness technology to rid the world of extreme poverty and hunger. I note that there is a Round Table here in Madrid on Linking Research to Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Policies. This will be a good forum for us all to explore how research and development can be effectively targeted to resolve this global food crisis.

It is important to bear in mind that agricultural research budgets and aid to agriculture are dwindling, natural resources are being rapidly depleted in part due to climate change, and worldwide growth in agricultural production is slowing. We must also weigh the issue of both population and economic growth, which together have caused the biggest surge in demand for food in history. Significant production increases will be required in animal and plant commodities, while the land area available for agriculture is shrinking.

The challenges facing us in food and agriculture are enormous and require a collective effort and long-term solutions. Scientific and technological innovation will play a crucial role in promoting global food safety and security and international cooperation will be vital. Through its Joint Division, the IAEA looks forward to working with other agencies in the UN family and the international community as a whole to ensure sustainable agriculture and increased food production in the face of our challenges.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If there is one thought I would like you to take away from these few remarks of mine, it is that the IAEA is not only about "Atoms for Peace". It is just as passionate about "Atoms for Food". Our Director General, Dr ElBaradei, reminded us recently that some 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 per day and nearly one billion go to bed hungry every night as "a blot on our conscience."

I hope that our deliberations in the next few days will help to make a meaningful difference to the lives of those hundreds of millions.

Last update: 27 October 2014