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Nuclear Science for Sustainable Agriculture: The IAEA-FAO Partnership

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Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General for Climate and Natural Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO) will be a speaker at next week's IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology. (Photo: FAO)

Interview with Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General for Climate and Natural Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO), and a speaker at the IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology, starting on 26 November. 

Q: The FAO/IAEA Joint Programme of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture is a good example of how partnerships between two international organizations can contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030.   In your opinion, what has made this partnership successful and what is its most important impact?

A: Indeed, the partnership between FAO and IAEA is a unique example of interagency cooperation. The Joint Programme of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture was established almost 55 years ago! The main factors for its success were and still are the combination of complementary mandates and common goals, a joint programming, co-funding and coordinated management. Thanks to the connection of both organizations’ strengths, we are able to respond efficiently to the needs of our Member countries and the global community.  

Over the past 55 years, the FAO/IAEA partnership has achieved significant successes with socio-economic impacts at country, regional and global levels; contributing to food security, poverty alleviation, and livelihoods. Let me give you some concrete examples:

In 2015, the Dominican Republic reported the presence of the Mediterranean fruit fly. Trade partners immediately banned the export of most fruits and vegetables, which caused a loss of US $40 million and put around 30.000 jobs at risk. Thanks to technical assistance from the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, the Dominican Republic was freed from the medfly infestation. The eradication was possible due to the division’s work on improving the sterile insect technique, to sterilize male insect to control or eradicate invasive insect pests. It is a cost-effective and environment friendly.

In Pakistan, farmers have rapidly adopted mutant cotton varieties. These varieties are more resistant to pests and diseases and are able to withstand high temperatures and heavy rains. It is estimated, that 15-25 percent of the total cotton area of the country is currently planted with mutant varieties, and this proportion is expected to increase to 30-40 percent in the next few years. This positively affects millions of stakeholders directly or indirectly related to cotton industry. Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology estimates that while the cotton mutant variety alone created and additional income of US $486 million between 1986 and 2004, the 43 mutant varieties for all crops had an economic impact on the national economy that, as of April 2018, amounted to US $6 billion.

Q: You will be a speaker at the upcoming IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology: Addressing Current and Emerging Development Challenges.   Why are conferences like this important? What takeaways would you like to see?

A: I am very honored to represent FAO at the IAEA Ministerial Conference. The Conference is taking place at a time when governments, international organizations and other stakeholders are seeking innovative solutions to address some of the most pressing global challenges related to food insecurity and malnutrition, population growth and urbanization, the depletion of our natural resources, climate change and political turmoil.

Intergovernmental meetings, particularly those with a Ministerial segment, provide the opportunity to bring different sectors together for a high-level dialogue; to build and strengthen a common vision; to explore avenues for partnerships; and to achieve the level of commitment and political will needed to bring about the necessary transformation. 

In relation to the theme of this Ministerial Conference, I believe that sustainable agriculture and food systems are central for economic growth, poverty alleviation and resilience to shocks such as natural disasters and climate change. This is particularly true for most low and low-middle income countries, where agriculture is the largest employer of the poor. The Conference outcomes will certainly benefit the long-lasting strategic partnership between FAO and IAEA to foster sustainable, resilient and inclusive food and agriculture systems. I am confident that the IAEA Ministerial Conference will reaffirm the commitments of IAEA, FAO and their Member States to strengthen international cooperation in the use of science and innovation to address global development challenges, paving the way for concrete avenues and coordinated actions to enhance and implement peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology.

Q: What role do you think science and technology in general, and nuclear science and technology in particular, can play in addressing current and emerging development challenges?

A: Today we face complex and interconnected challenges that threaten global food security and socio-economic wellbeing in many countries. Recent FAO estimates indicate that the number of undernourished people has reached 821 million, rising for the third consecutive year. At the same time, 2 billion people suffer from malnutrition and around 672 million adults are obese. We need a holistic approach and transformative actions that embrace the three dimensions of sustainable development and address root causes to leave no one behind.

When the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it was a clear sign that business as usual is no longer an option, that we need transformation. We have reached an inflection point in agriculture and food systems. Today, it is fundamental that we produce and consume food in a way that preserves the environment, and our biodiversity. We have to implement sustainable practices that provide healthy and nutritious food, ecosystem services and climate-change resilience.

Science and innovation are essential to meet this daunting challenge. However, we not only need to focus on technological solutions, but also on transforming social, economic, institutional, and policy processes. Science and technology can provide innovative and practical solutions to achieve food security, secure livelihoods, enhance our collective well-being, and boost economic growth, while preserving natural resources and protecting the environment. It comes with an urgent need to increase private and public investments in agricultural science and technology research.

Nuclear science and technology add value to conventional approaches by addressing a range of development challenges. Nuclear science and technology with competitive and comparative advantages will continue finding innovative approaches and scalable sustainable solutions to developing more efficient and resilient production systems, building more resilient rural communities, and supporting economic growth in Member countries.

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