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Nuclear Techniques in Agriculture Demonstrated via Coordinated Research Project D15013: Increasing Yields and Optimizing Fertilizer and Water Use

Success story
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Ratooning after the first harvest. (Photo: © Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China)

The IAEA, in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), recently completed a coordinated research project (CRP), D15013 (Approaches to Improvement of Crop Genotypes with High Water and Nutrient use Efficiency for Water Scarce Environments ) that aimed to improve crop productivity and food security in harsh agricultural environments. The CRP demonstrated the success of a combination of nuclear and related techniques across ten countries, which led to increased crop yields (including some double-harvests) and savings in both water and fertilizer use under environmental stress conditions, such as drought, low soil fertility and high soil salinity.

Nuclear science provides a range of techniques for improving agricultural productivity. This CRP employed a combination of soil and water management practices and crop mutation breeding to make crops more robust to changes in climate and to produce better yields.

Plant mutation breeding involves using radiation to induce changes in the DNA (i.e. in the genotype) of plant species followed by screening for useful agronomic traits. New traits resulting from this treatment are then selected for useful agronomic traits, multiplied and made available to farmers. The new crop varieties used in this CRP had been selected for improved adaptability to climate change.

Soil and water management can also be enhanced through nuclear techniques. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division uses nitrogen-15 as a tracer to estimate how efficiently crops take up the nitrogen fertilizer applied by farmers to maximize crop yields, or to quantify the amount of nitrogen that legume crops can acquire from the atmosphere. Similarly, carbon-13 is used to evaluate crops for their ability to use water efficiently and hence ensure that natural resources, such as land, water and soil nutrients, are used more efficiently and sustainably in specific agricultural situations.

Ratoon rice ready for harvest (Photo: © Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China)

An important aspect of this CRP was the variety of crops and agroecosystems that were tested alongside the application of these techniques. Improved varieties of rice, sorghum, soybean, banana, potato, amaranth, wheat, barley and quinoa and several soil and water management techniques were combined and tested in farmers’ fields in a variety of ecological systems to select the varieties that give the highest yields in specific and often harsh environments.

 “The great thing about the project was the combination of mutation breeding and isotopic methods to measure and monitor interactions between soil, water and nutrients to optimize yield,” said Joseph Adu-Gyamfi, Soil Fertility Specialist with the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture and Scientific Secretary of this CRP. “It wasn’t just about demonstrating that the combined techniques could help increase productivity in harsh environments; that we already know. With more than 30% increase in crop yields and 25-30% savings in water and nitrogen fertilizer, farmers are likely to be very excited. And, most of all, the environment will benefit.”

The results obtained in this CRP have so far generated eight scientific publications. That is crucial, since practical knowledge of this kind is substantially more valuable the more widely it gets disseminated. Field data on these combined nuclear and isotopic techniques will hopefully enable more farmers in the world to improve the productivity of their crops and the efficiency with which they use increasingly scarce resources under often harsh environmental conditions, and hence sustainably contribute to global food security.

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