By 2050, the world population will increase to more than 9 billion people, and many will live in developing countries that already confront a food crisis. To feed them adequately, agricultural production will have to increase by 70%. That is a tough challenge as the effects of climate change are expected to worsen, bringing more droughts, floods, heat waves and destructive weather, that makes agricultural production becomes more unpredictable.
Using nuclear techniques, the IAEA assists countries adapt to climate change by helping them develop and plant crops which more tolerant to stress, improve livestock's health and productivity and conserve soil through a practice called climate-smart agriculture. To highlight the Agency's activities in the field, the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation and the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications organized a seminar on climate smart agriculture on 10 May 2012. Participants at the Preparatory Committee Meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference attended the event. Susanne Nebel, Programme Planning Officer at the IAEA's Technical Cooperation Department and Minh-Long Nguyen, Section Head of the Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition Section at the Joint FAO/ IAEA Programme within the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, led the seminar. Nebel described the concept of climate-smart agriculture and Nguyen described the science underlying this new practice.
Climate-Smart Soil and Water Management
Soil conservation and the efficient use of water are very important in countries affected by climate change. Nuclear and isotopic techniques can help develop climate-smart soil and water management practices
Conservation agriculture is a practice in which farmers keep the crop residues on the soil surface and cultivate different crops every season through a procedure called crop rotation. This way, they reduce the runoff and erosion of the soil and allow it to retain more water and nutrients. This technique also permits the soil to incorporate more carbon and to reduce carbon emissions from soils.
More efficient irrigation systems save water and nutrients and increase the resilience of the crop against drought. For example, water that directly reaches a plant's roots through a technique called drip irrigation is one of the most efficient ways to save water and increase harvest at the same time. A small instrument known as neutron probe uses nuclear technology to measure the soil water and find out when and where the plant needs water.
Climate Resistant Plants
Using small amounts of radiation to swiftly generate new plant varieties, IAEA scientists have developed plants that are disease resistant and resilient to climatic disruptions and temperature changes. Such varieties include the drought-tolerant wheat cultivated in Kenya and high-altitude barley that can thrive at a growing altitude of 5 000 meters in the Peruvian Andes. The cultivation of these varieties allows communities to grow food locally and become less dependent on increasingly expensive food imports.
Climate-Smart Insect Pest Control
Climate change now allows insect pests to migrate and survive in previously, colder hostile regions. Through a technique called the sterile insect technique (SIT), the IAEA helps Member States address insect pest outbreaks in new regions.
SIT is a type of "birth control" in which radiation-sterilized males are released to mate with wild female insects of the pest population. These female insects will lay infertile eggs that cannot hatch to produce offspring. Over time, the insect pest population in the area decreases. The pest population's suppression can be achieved, with much less or no pesticides.
Animal Health and Food Safety
Changes in temperature will also encourage the spread of certain animal diseases. Countries will have to confront animal diseases that did not previously appear in their regions. Through data gathered with the help of nuclear techniques, scientists are able to predict the animal disease's potential spread and other factors such as the risk for human transmission.
Climate change is predicted to increase the use of agrochemicals and pesticides. Food monitoring using nuclear techniques can detect in a timely and cost-effective manner the presence of pesticide-contaminated products to protect public health.
The side event concluded with a question and answer session, focused on the science behind climate-smart nuclear techniques.