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Game-Changing Technological Achievements

For decades, this unique partnership between FAO and IAEA has achieved countless successes, with distinct socioeconomic impacts at country, regional and global levels. Its work has shown how nuclear applications provide added value to conventional approaches in addressing a range of agricultural problems and issues, including food safety, animal production and health, crop improvement, insect pest control and sustainable use of finite natural resources. The Joint FAO/IAEA Programme has been responsible for many game-changing technological developments that have led to far-reaching achievements following their transfer to Member States. Key achievements include:

Radiation-induced genetic diversity: Methodologies for inducing novel genetic diversity (mutations) towards the improvement of plant species have been developed.  This involves  treating seeds, organs, tissues and cells of plants with chemical and physical mutagens,  mainly gamma rays, X rays, fast neutrons and ion-beams. At present, more than 110 countries are using this technology for plant breeding to enhance crop biodiversity. Thousands of mutant genotypes/lines with traits of agronomic importance have been developed and shared, broadening the genetic base of the pool of global germplasm.

Mutation detection and selection: New and more effective techniques have been developed and shared to detect and select the induced mutations. These techniques are less expensive and applicable at large scale, and have thereby accelerated the development of varieties by changing single characteristics without affecting the overall phenotype. More efficient biotechnologies based on plant cell tissue culture, high throughput pre-field and molecular screening techniques, as well as improved field screening technologies have enabled plant breeders to develop new varieties in a shorter time aimed at improving food security, with for example, disease resistance, better adaptation to harsh environments and better quality. Since 1964, over 3300 mutant varieties from over 200 plant species have been officially released in over 70 countries. Their value is measured in billions of dollars and in millions of cultivated hectares.

Functional genomics for trait utilization:  Molecular analytical techniques combined with computational tools have been developed or adapted to establish gene-to-phenotype relationships essentially identifying the DNA changes or mutations that result in a particular phenotype.  Current techniques used include amplicon sequencing and exome capture, while newer methodologies in genomics are being onboarded or adapted as they evolve. Information on gene-to-phenotype or genetic associations enable the use of key molecular information in marker-assisted selection and gene editing.  Currently, gene editing using the CRISPR/Cas technique is being developed in-house (1) for those Member States that request capacity building in the technology and (2) as a functional genomics tool for validating genetic associations.

Speed breeding for accelerated genetic gain:  Speed breeding for accelerated genetic gain includes a host of techniques that reduce the cycle time required for the development of a new variety.  These include doubled haploidy, rapid cycling and shuttle breeding.  Haploidy induction and doubling has been established in rice using anther culture, while rapid cycling technique has also been developed in the greenhouse for wheat, barley and sorghum, which enables the completion of 4 to 7 crop cycles in a year.

Radioimmunoassay technology: Highly sensitive isotopic technologies have been developed to increase the efficiency of artificial insemination and improve animal reproduction. These technologies, together with other conventional techniques, have been adopted by 60 Member States for use in livestock breeding programmes and have significantly improved the productive performances of livestock. The RIA technology has been developed to support the testing of chemical residues in food and facilitate national residue monitoring programmes.

Advanced diagnostic tools and monitoring tests: Tools and tests have been developed that have proved to be vital for the early detection of animal diseases, even before the onset of clinical signs. These include conventional serological and/or molecular based technologies, as well as advanced technologies with the capacity for direct field application. They have enabled Member States to achieve the rapid enforcement of disease control measures, thus reducing losses caused by animal/zoonotic diseases. These technologies have been used in over 95 Member States and have contributed to the control (and elimination) of important animal diseases such as rinderpest.

Isotopic labelling technologies for animal nutrition: Technologies have been developed and improved to evaluate the nutritive value of locally available feeds. By using these technologies, a set of nutrition feeding tools have been developed for the production of feed supplements from locally available feedstuffs, which have improved the productive performance of farm animals in Member States from 50% to 350%.

Fallout radionuclides (FRNs) technique: The FRNs technique has been developed as a tool to assess soil erosion and land degradation so that appropriate soil and water conservation management practices can be effectively targeted to reduce erosion. More than 75 Member States adopted the FRNs technique to track soil movement and develop cost effective soil conservation measures. As a result, soil erosion rates in experimental areas in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America were reduced by up to 50% through the implementation of soil conservation measures.

Nitrogen-15 analytical technique for biological nitrogen fixation (BNF): The BNF is a process whereby grain, forage and tree legumes acquire/fix nitrogen (N) from the atmosphere, hence reducing the need for chemical nitrogen fertilizer to be purchased for crop production. The amount of nitrogen fixed by legumes can be accurately determined by using the nitrogen-15 isotopic technique. The Joint Centre has developed and improved nitrogen-15 analytical techniques and promoted the extensive use of BNF to capture more nitrogen from the atmosphere and to improve soil fertility, enabling farmers to improve crop production while saving millions of dollars applying chemical nitrogen.

Isotopic tracing techniques for crop nutrition and water management: Procedures have been developed and refined using the isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and oxygen and related techniques to provide more efficient tracing methods to understand the movement of nutrients between soil, water and plants, improving water and fertilizer use efficiency, optimizing soil conservation strategies, and identify soil-water-nutrient management practices for optimizing crop productivity. For example, the stable isotopes of carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 have been used to measure precisely the carbon-nitrogen interaction to optimize both carbon and nitrogen capture as well as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and land use, which accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Further, carbon-13 of fatty acids in soil samples (compound specific stable isotopes CSSI) is used to measure in specific organic compounds to identify the source of sediments for optimizing soil conservation strategies. CSSI is also being applied to determine the antimicrobials pathways and its movement.

Cosmic-ray neutron sensor technology: New nuclear technologies have been developed for assessing soil moisture area-wide through the use of neutron counting, known as cosmic-ray neutron sensing. Rather than measuring soil moisture at point scale, it measures area-wide soil moisture of up to 20 hectares.

Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for agricultural pest control: The SIT has been developed to control major agricultural insect pests that cause significant losses and affect international trade, including several fruit fly and moth pests, and tsetse and screwworm flies. SIT packages have been developed for the European grapevine moth and the Spotted Wing Dorsophila.

Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for Fruit Flies: A multilateral approach eliminated the Mediterranean fruit fly in Mexico and parts of Guatemala, which not only led to investments in horticultural production (in Guatemala, this amounted to US $150 million), but also substantially promoted the export of fresh fruit (US $4.3 billion alone in increased annual exports from Mexico). The SIT has also produced substantial socioeconomic and environmental benefits to numerous Member States in Central and South America, North Africa, Middle East and South-East Asia.

Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for Tsetse Flies: New methods have been developed to mass-rear and feed flies on sterilized blood through a membrane system – instead of using live animals. This has allowed the SIT to be applied against various tsetse fly species, leading to successful eradication programmes in Zanzibar and Senegal. A new Tsetse Sorting Technology uses an infrared, high-speed camera to efficiently speed up the sorting of tsetse by sex.

Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) for Mosquitoes: As part of an assessment of the feasibility of applying the SIT to selected species of mosquitoes, the Joint Centre has recently been developing the SIT package  for vectors of major diseases. The full package has now been transferred to the field and pilot projects are under way to evaluate this new technology for human disease vectors.

Genetic sexing methodologies for SIT application: The SIT invariably relies on the ability of released sterile male insects to effectively compete and mate with native female counterparts. The Joint Centre has developed genetic sexing strains, including one based on female temperature sensitivity in Mediterranean fruit flies. This has enabled the separation of males from females as early as possible in the life cycle on a large industrial scale, thus saving on the cost of mass rearing females and increasing the effectiveness of the SIT as sterile males will only compete for wild females. This strain is currently utilized in all SIT programmes against this pest in the world.

Nuclear and related analytical techniques for food authenticity and verification of geographical origin: New nuclear analytical methods, datasets and standard operation procedures (SOPs) have been developed to increase the national/regional laboratory capabilities in Member States for analysis of food safety, authenticity and geographical origin. This includes the application of stable isotopes and radioisotope techniques in combination with conventional analytical methods to identify and combat food fraud, including adulterants and illegal additives in food and feed, and to determine food origins or verify product provenance.

Multi-residue/contaminant nuclear and related analytical techniques: Techniques have been developed for the simultaneous detection of various veterinary drugs and pesticides that enable Member States to monitor trace levels of a range of chemicals economically and more efficiently. The Centre has also developed and transferred analytical methods for natural contaminants such as mycotoxins and phytotoxins, and expanded the capabilities of  laboratories in many developing countries through the use of analytical methods that can simultaneously detect a range of residues and contaminants of different classes and sources.

Multi-stable isotope fingerprinting of major elements (H, C, O and S) have also been successfully applied to trace and monitor sources and transport of agrochemicals through soil, water and environment. The stable isotope of oxygen composition in phosphate can be used to pinpoint the source of pollution/contamination in the agroecosystem.

Radioreceptor assay technology: Procedures have been developed utilizing the comparative advantage of H-3 and C-14 labelled compounds, along with liquid scintillation counting, to quickly detect a wide range of chemical residues and contaminants in various food matrices of animal and plant origin. These techniques have been adapted and adopted in more than 25 Member States and are being used to support food safety testing.

Irradiated Vaccines

Irradiation of transboundary animal disease pathogens as vaccines and immune inducers is becoming an alternative to vaccines using attenuated or killed pathogens. Usually, live vaccines are more efficient since they mimic natural infections and appropriately trigger the complete immune system. Unfortunately, some vaccines still have risks, in particular the risk of reversion to pathogenicity. Such risks do not exist with killed vaccines but usually those are less efficient since the chemical inactivation process may destroy some antigens that are important in immune protection. Recent studies have demonstrated the usefulness of irradiation to inactivate pathogens in such a way that they are not able to grow but still have the ability to synthesize proteins and thereby to better trigger, in vivo, the entire repertoire of the host immune system.

Food Irradiation technology: This technology has been developed to treat food to ensure improved quality and safety, as well as for quarantine purposes in international trade. Irradiated food is now accepted and approved in more than 60 countries.

Technology for emergency response: Technology packages have been developed for sampling, analysis and monitoring of radioactive contamination in food and agriculture following nuclear and radiological incidents as well as for the remediation of its impact in food and agriculture. Rapid techniques for screening food for chemical residues and contaminants have also been developed to enhance the resilience of national food control systems in crises, emergencies or where normal monitoring and testing capabilities are challenged, for example by situations such as those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stable Isotopes for tracing bird migrations and its association with the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza: The technique is based on stable isotope ratios (SI) in tissues of birds, especially in feathers in association with existing isoscapes for δD and other essential isotopes to analyse the migratory pathways of wild water fowl. In addition, the analysis of stool samples for simultaneous detection of bird species and possible presence of avian influenza virus through DNA detection help to establish the epidemiological link between migration pathways (obtained by SIs in feathers) and the transmission of the virus to a geographical area.


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