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'Nuclear Package' Helps Farmers Increase Rice Yields and Income in Northern Malaysia

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Malaysian rice farmer Muhammad Helmi Mohd Noor is applying biofertilizer produced using irradiation. He has seen his yields increase by 40% since adapting products and practices developed by Nuklear Malaysia. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Kubang Anak Gajah Village, Kedah, Malaysia – An integrated approach that includes a new rice variety, biofertilizer and plant growth promoter has made all the difference to rice farmer, Muhammad Helmi Mohd Noor and his neighbours in this northern Malaysian village. They saw their yields – and with it their income – increase by 40% in the last two growing seasons thanks to what they call the “nuclear package”: a set of products and services developed by the government’s nuclear agency, Nuklear Malaysia, to help the country’s rice farmers cope with low soil fertility and changing weather patterns, including more erratic rainfall and longer dry spells.

“Even when there is no water for a few days or weeks, this new rice can grow,” Mohd Noor said.

Developed using nuclear techniques, the new rice variety called NMR152 is used by 25 farmers while undergoing the last phases of testing by agriculture authorities, who have in the meantime begun to multiply the seeds on special breeding plots, to have enough available for all farmers in the northern, rice growing area of the country once approval has been granted in the next 12 to 18 months. “This variety has survived both periods of drought and submersion in water for 8 days, while other varieties died,” said Abdul Shahrizal, Agriculture Officer at the Centre of Excellence of Rice in neighbouring Perak province. “We are working hard to produce the seeds needed for large scale use.”

Workers at Malaysia's Centre of Excellence of Rice working on a rice field used to multiply a rice variety with favourable traits developed using irradiation. (Photo: M. Gaspasr/IAEA)

Rice is a major staple food in Malaysia and a source of income for 300,000 farmers. Competition for water, extreme weather events, inadequate nutrients and fertilizer and lower yielding traditional rice varieties have compelled the development of new varieties and farming practices. The IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme and in tandem with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), assists countries around the world, including Malaysia, in adapting their agriculture practices to climate change by disseminating knowledge and best practices, providing training and fellowship programmes as well as laboratory services for researchers.

Cooperation between Nuklear Malaysia and agriculture authorities is key to the success of the project. Researchers at the nuclear agency developed the new variety by irradiating seeds, mimicking and accelerating the natural process of spontaneous mutation, and then selecting the variety with useful traits. But Nuklear Malaysia does not have the plots or the mandate to multiply the seeds and make them available to farmers beyond a pilot project. “When farmers in the wider area see the difference between their yield and ours, they want to plant the new variety also,” Mohd Noor said. It will likely take two growing seasons before there is enough supply of seeds that it can be released to farmers, Shahrizal added.

Nurturing the right variety

Having favourable agronomic traits is a good start, but it takes more than the right variety to cope with changing weather and increase yields.

The farmers also receive an organic plant growth promoter and plant elicitor known as oligochitosan produced using irradiation at Nuklear Malaysia. This product is derived from chitin, which is found in household and agricultural waste such as the shells of crawfish, shrimp, crabs and lobsters. Chitin is turned into chitosan through a chemical process and is degraded into oligochitosan using gamma or electron beam irradiation. Its use as growth promoter reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizer by some 30%, explained Shyful Rahman, an agronomist with Nuklear Malaysia in charge of the project in Kedah.

This is important not only because it saves farmers additional expenditure, but also because it could help restore biodiversity in the region. “Many local species, including fish have receded or completely disappeared from the area as a result of fertilizer use,” he said. “When I was a child, we used to go fishing almost every day. I hope I can do that again when I retire.”

Isotopic techniques are used to determine the amount of fertilizer required and further optimize its use: By using the 15N isotope, which has the same chemical characteristics as ordinary nitrogen but includes an extra neutron, scientists can track how much fertilizer the plant absorbs, so that farmers only add to the soil what is necessary and when it is necessary. In the case of Hassan and his neighbors, this has reduced fertilizer use by a further 20%.

Another product, pyroligneous acid, also known as liquid smoke for its smell, is produced by the condensation of the smoke from the process of producing charcoal. Charcoal or activated charcoal in particular are well known to capture and bind radioactive material in contaminated soil.  Liquid smoke is a natural fungicide, byproduct of charcoal production and it has been used to inhibit several fungal plant pathogens.

“With this complex approach, we are not only helping farmers earn more but are also improving the resilience of Malaysia’s rice production systems to climate change,” Rahman said.

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