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Climate-Proof Crops: Capacity Building to Develop Resilient Crop Varieties in Small Island Developing States

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Scientists from Fiji, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu participated in the two-week-long regional training course. (Photo: M. Matijevic/IAEA)

Climate change poses increasing risks to the entire global community, but its impact is particularly pronounced in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), whose isolation, smaller geographic size and direct exposure to sea-level rise and storm surges have exacerbated the effects of a changing climate. From 14 to 24 October, trainees from five SIDS in the Asia and Pacific region gathered at the FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory in Seibersdorf, Austria, to strengthen their skills in the use of a nuclear technique to develop new, more resilient plant varieties.

Excessive rains and flooding, drought and rising temperatures, salt-water intrusion caused by sea level rise, coastal erosion, unpredictable storms and extreme weather events—these are some of the climate-related challenges faced by SIDS. These trends have had severe effects on agricultural output in the Pacific region: Yams and sweet potato harvests are failing due to persisting droughts, breadfruits are blown away by strong winds and coconuts are increasingly succumbing to bacterial parasites.

“Many people in my country are dependent on agricultural production and live at the semi-subsistence level of farming, often relying on their produce as a cash crop destined for export markets,” said Sufuawana Safara Hussein of the Fijian Ministry of Agriculture’s Sigatoka Research Station. “Changes in weather patterns affect seasonal cropping, the availability of certain foods and market prices.”

All aspects of mutation breeding, from the initial mutation discovery and testing to DNA extraction and quality control, were explored through hands-on training at the FAO/IAEA Plant Breeding and Genetics Laboratory. (Photo: M. Matijevic/IAEA)

Committed to protecting and strengthening agricultural sector, 12 scientists from Fiji, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu participated in a regional training course to acquire both the fundamental principles and the practical methods for crop mutation breeding, a technique which mimics and accelerates the natural process of mutation to develop new, valuable agronomic traits. Part of an ongoing, regional technical cooperation (TC) project, the training course was organized and implemented with the support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. It began with a series of lectures and presentations which introduced the scientific concepts that underpin the development of new plant varieties and the subsequent analysis of their observable phenotypic and genetic characteristics.

“The objective of the training course was to provide participants with theoretical and practical information on mutation breeding and related biotechnologies to enhance the efficiency of plant mutation breeding,” said Fatma Sarsu, a plant breeder and geneticist, at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, who provided technical oversight for both the training and the TC project as a whole.

The 12 trainees continued their training during which they developed hands-on experience in all aspects of mutation breeding, from the initial detection and testing to DNA extraction and quality control. Throughout the course, the participants had the opportunity to work with recently-developed strains of banana to better understand how the newly-bred varieties have been selected for resilience to fungi and to adverse environmental conditions.

“My country is new to genomics,” said Hussein. “I believe the Ministry [of Agriculture] can and should tap into mutation breeding and phenotyping of chilli and rice strains in order to improve food security and to strengthen our participation in lucrative export markets." 

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