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Mutant Varieties Satisfy Market and add USD 6 Billion to Pakistan’s Economy

Plant Mutation Pakistan

When Pakistani farmers harvested fields planted with a new mutant variety of cotton, not only did they have a higher yield, they also received a higher price at the market because of the improved fibre quality. Farmers who adopted mutant varieties of sesame released in 2016 saw yields double and income increase, and now these new varieties cover 50 percent of the area planted to sesame in the entire country. Those who planted a mutant variety of castor bean released in 2017, bred for early maturity and high oil content, have already planted it on 2 000 ha and are making an extra USD 618 per ha. These are just a few of dozens of advances made possible by Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) which, with the support of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, has used mutation breeding to improve varieties of eight different crops – benefitting millions of Pakistani farmers and their families, and adding billions to the Pakistan economy.

Across the millennia, those entrusted with saving seeds for planting in future seasons have always made decisions related to the environment, choosing seeds from varieties that will give them the best chance of a good harvest. Even as science has advanced the field from simply saving seeds to cross breeding and now to mutation breeding, the crucial role of the plant breeder has remained largely unchanged – developing varieties that can thrive in whatever the local environment has to offer and be resilient enough to adapt to change. Since 1969, Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), an institute of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, has overseen the development of 43 mutant crop varieties, ranging from sesame seed to castor bean to mandarin to cotton – all bred in response to what Pakistan’s farmers and their consumers need.

The government of Pakistan recognizes the importance of breeding crop varieties specifically for the Pakistan situation – its terrain, its climate, the needs and capacities of its farmers and, of course, when it comes to food crops, the taste and texture that will appeal to consumers. This government support of the NIAB mutant breeding programme has paid back in terms of increased yields and higher quality products, which have not only contributed to farmers’ livelihoods, it has meant more food for the marketplace and improved food security. Two sesame varieties released in 2016 and 2017 have double the yield of traditional varieties and are more suitable for modern cultivation techniques. The mutant mandarin variety, NIAB Kinnow, released in 2017, has an increased yield of more than 30 percent and reduced seed count from around 50 to just 3-5 seeds per fruit, which makes it more valuable and popular for export.

Breeding for taste and texture as well as yield

NIAB has received support from the Joint Division for more than 30 years, including equipment and technology packages for mutation breeding, individual staff trainingthrough fellowships, and national and regional training courses. The mutation breeding process calls for irradiating and then planting crop seeds, and then screening them as they grow in the following generations to see which induced changes that emerge could be helpful for breeding in future generations – from aesthetics of colour and texture to physiological changes that account for traits such as heat or cold tolerance, resilience or length of the growing period.

With its overall goal of supporting NIAB in improving local varieties, the Joint Division has included NIAB in three regional projects in Asia, for cotton, rice and green crops. NIAB staff members serve as experts to support national and regional technical cooperation projects and participate in the Joint Division’s coordinated research projects (CRPs). Staff members also attend general training courses, on topics such as breeding protocols developed by the Joint Division, and have attended specialized training on topics such as drought tolerance and disease resistance in rice with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), mutation breeding for development of heat tolerant cotton mutant varieties, and breeding for green crops in Pakistan focused on climate-smart agriculture.

Cotton of course is a cash crop, important for the textile industry in the region, which has made it a priority for NIAB’s mutation breeding activities. Right now, of the 3.1 million hectares planted with cotton, between 15 and 25 percent are planted with mutant varieties, a number expected to increase to 30–40 percent in 2018–2019. Three mutant varieties released in 2013, 2016 and 2017 have been well accepted by the farmers because of their ability to withstand high temperatures and heavy rains, resistance to pests and diseases, and their capacity to sustain yields in this time of climate change while also producing a very high-quality fibre that brings a higher price than standard varieties at the market.

These results of NIAB’s work with the Joint Division demonstrate that modern and advanced nuclear techniques contribute to major improvements in agricultural output in both quantity and quality, which is especially important considering that the livelihoods of 80 percent of the Pakistani population comes from agriculture. The improved characteristics of the mutant varieties have not only improved the agriculture sector’s output and, in turn, national food security, they have also contributed to the economy of the country. The cotton mutant variety NIAB-78 alone created an additional income of USD 486 million to often poor growers between 1986 and 2004. NIAB estimates that the 43 NIAB mutant varieties had an economic impact on the national economy that, as of April 2018, amounted to USD 6 billion.

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