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Iraq Uses Nuclear Technology to Improve Crop Productivity and Adapt to Climate Change

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Nuclear technology has allowed Iraqi scientists to develop drought and salt resistant plant varieties. (Photo: I. Ingelbrecht/IAEA)

A new drought-tolerant wheat variety developed in Iraq with the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has increased yields four-fold. This mutant variety now accounts for close to two thirds of all the wheat produced in the country.

Iraq is increasingly making use of nuclear technology to improve its crop yields and cope with challenges brought about by a changing climate. Researchers in Iraq have developed new drought-tolerant plant varieties and improved water and soil management.

These developments have helped enhance food production and adapt to climate change, said Ibrahim Bakri Abdulrazzaq, Director General of Baghdad's Agricultural Research Institute at Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology. "We have developed efficient packages of technology that aim to overcome the most pressing problems in the area of agriculture."

Iraq's rangelands, where shepherds herd their sheep and cattle, have seen warmer temperatures and less rainfall since the early 2000s. Without a vegetative cover, they have become less fertile and more susceptible to erosion, affecting the country's rain-fed agriculture and the wheat-producing provinces, Abdulrazzaq explained.

From 2007 to 2011, Abdulrazzaq and his colleagues worked alongside experts from the IAEA and FAO to find solutions to these challenges through mutation-induced plant breeding. This technique involves exposing plant seeds and cuttings to radiation to generate genetic variability and then select the improved agronomic traits of interest.

Iraqi scientists used the technique to develop four improved varieties of traditional crops that tolerated both drought and salty soil, soil conditions typical of dry areas that hinder plant growth. The varieties are also resistant to lodging — when stems or roots are displaced from their vertical and proper placement — and seed shattering, both major causes of yield loss in crops.

"All the results have gone directly to the farmers. Now, the farmers tell us they want the new plants," Abdulrazzaq said. "They are even ready to pay more because they know the wheat and the barley are salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant and have high productivity."

Whereas the conventional variety of Iraqi wheat only produces one tonne per hectare, the new variety developed through mutation breeding boasts a productivity of four tonnes per hectare. Almost 65% of the wheat produced in Iraq today comes from these new varieties.

These new varieties are also more resistant to dust storms – another problem farmers increasingly face. "Some years ago, we had 17 dust storms per year," Abdulrazzaq said.  "Now, partly because of the unprotected rangelands, we have more than a hundred dust storms. And this affects the fertility of the soil, water resources and human beings."

More than food

Iraq has also collaborated with the IAEA in applying nuclear technology in other fields, such as nuclear medicine, radiotherapy and industry, including the construction of oil pipes using non-destructive testing methods. Equally important is the decommissioning and environmental remediation of Iraq's nuclear complex destroyed in 2003.

Since 2006, the IAEA has been working with Iraqi officials to reduce the radiological risk to the public and the environment by decommissioning old installations and remediating decontaminated areas and disposal sites.

"The project is a big undertaking," said Eric Howell, Managing Director of the environmental risk assessment company Facilia Projects participating in the project. "It touches on all the relevant fields you could think of: from regulatory support, radiation safety to radioactive waste management. The IAEA has played an integral role in coordinating the decommissioning work in the country."

Iraqi and IAEA experts discussed these and other areas of technical cooperation during a recent meeting held in Vienna to chart a new plan of enhanced collaboration, said Abdulghani Shakhashiro, Programme Management Officer at the IAEA.

Meanwhile, scientists and researchers like Abdulrazzaq are working to help Iraq move a step closer to the sustainable development goals. "Sometimes, Iraq gets forgotten. But with more involved stakeholders and an improved security situation, the story can always change," Howell said.

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