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World Food Day: How Nuclear Techniques Can Help to Combat Poverty and Hunger

In many parts of the world, extreme poverty disproportionately affects rural communities that rely on agriculture for their incomes. As the global community works together to combat rural poverty and to build inclusive, resilient and sustainable food systems, nuclear science and technology can play a role in overcoming agricultural challenges that perpetuate cycles of poverty and hunger.

Today is World Food Day — a day set out to raise awareness of the importance of combating the poverty and hunger that burden millions of people worldwide. The IAEA adds its voice by sharing a few of the ways that nuclear science and technology can help, from the ground where food grows to the insect pests that jeopardize animal and human lives, to the livestock that provide milk and meat.   

Taking root

As Dao Thanh Canh watched the soil of his coffee plantation erode away, he saw his livelihood slipping away along with it. The experience of this Vietnamese farmer is not uncommon: soil erosion is the main contributor to land degradation globally, leading to an annual loss of 75 billion tonnes of fertile soil, with an estimated economic cost of about US $126 billion per year (based on current fertilizer prices). For people who rely on agriculture for food and income, this can be devastating.

To help farmers better manage their soil and protect their livelihoods, the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), supports scientists and farmers in measuring and controlling soil erosion through the use of various nuclear techniques. Read about Dao Thanh Canh and how nuclear techniques helped him to turn his situation around.

To learn more about how nuclear techniques help in studying erosion, watch this video on Studying Erosion with the Help of Radionuclides.

Rice for the future

Monga means starvation in Bengali, and that is what farmers in the northern region of Bangladesh call the period between harvests when there is too little time to grow more crops, but not enough food or work to go around. In other parts of Bangladesh, harsh environmental conditions stunt crop growth and hamper yields. Seasonal gaps and increasing difficult climates affect millions of rural families worldwide making it difficult to break cycles of hunger and poverty.

Breeding new crop varieties is one way to face these challenges. From shorter maturation times to more salt tolerance, crop varieties developed using nuclear techniques offer farmers new options for overcoming these agricultural obstacles. In Bangladesh, monga no longer poses the same threat, as a new mutant rice variety developed using nuclear techniques offers higher yields and shorter maturation times, leading to more food and work for farm workers, including women. Read about how plant mutation breeding makes a difference in Bangladesh and how the IAEA is helping.

Watch this video on Giving Mother Nature a Helping Hand to learn more about how plant mutation breeding works.

Drip, drop here come the crops

Growing high value crops in Mauritius is a costly challenge for many small-scale farmers on the island nation where yields and productivity are hampered by limited water resources, a difficult climate, and decreasing annual rainfalls. For Mauritian farmers like Manoj Chumroo, options for increasing water use efficiency are often prohibitively expensive or labor-intensive and wasteful. With agriculture accounting for 70 per cent of global freshwater use and is only expected to increase according to the FAO, improving water use efficiency is crucial for development.

With the help of nuclear and isotopic techniques, farmers like Chumroo can measure moisture and nitrogen levels in both soil and plants to help them know exactly how much water and nutrients to use and when. And when coupled with methods like drip irrigation that delivers water directly to the base or roots of plants, water efficiency increases and crop yields can go up. The IAEA and its partners help countries improve the management of water and nutrients, and provide the training needed to benefit from these techniques. Read more about how work like this has influenced Chumroo’s life and the life of his family.

Find out more about drip irrigation and water management in More Crop Per Drop — Coping with Water Scarcity in Kenya.

Staving off insect pests

Insect pests wreak havoc on farmers worldwide, from fruit flies infesting citrus crops to screwworms threatening animal and human health. For years, farmers in the Niayes region of Senegal have lost livestock to blood-sucking tsetse flies and the parasites they carry. As these farmers lose livestock, they lose their milk and meat products as well as manure to fertilize crops — essential sources of food and income — and local development suffers. The impact of these flies is felt throughout sub-Saharan Africa with more than three million livestock lost to tsetse flies each year, which, according to the United Kingdom Department of International Development, costs the agriculture industry more than US $4 billion annually.

Now thanks to the combined use of an insect pest birth control method involving radiation and insecticides, more than 95% of the tsetse fly population has been reduced in target areas of the Niayes region. The sterile insect technique (SIT) uses ionizing radiation to mass sterilize male insect pests for the suppression, and in some cases, eradication of insect pests. SIT plays an important role in many countries as a means of managing insect pests in a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way, and the IAEA, along with its partners, are helping. Read more about the tsetse fly eradication efforts in Senegal and how SIT is making a difference.

To learn more about how the sterile insect technique works, watch this video on Using Nuclear Science to Control Pests.

Better animal health, more milk and meat

Cows, goats, sheep, poultry and pigs, among other livestock, are crucial sources of food and income for many people. When the animals fall ill or fail to produce milk, the problem is not just a veterinary issue, but it can have far reaching consequences for farmers and their families, the local community, and, in some cases, can cross borders and have zoonotic impacts. The status of these animals’ health and productivity can be the difference between a food crisis and thriving development.

In Cameroon, scientists and farmers are using innovative, nuclear and nuclear-derived techniques to help improve livestock genetics while keeping animals free from disease and thus increasing their meat and milk production. With support from the IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme and its partnership with the FAO, these techniques play a role in the country’s livestock reproduction and breeding, artificial insemination, and disease control programmes. Read more about Cameroon’s milk and cattle production and how livestock are getting a boost from nuclear techniques.

To find out more about this topic, watch these videos on Cattle Meet Nuclear Science and Protecting Africa's Lifeblood: Controlling Animal Disease in Cameroon.

Help along the way

As people move along the path out of poverty, food supply chains grow in importance, and safeguarding food quality and safety helps to ensure there are no barriers to markets. For many developing countries where food trade is a large percentage of their GDP, ensuring food safety is key.

Food safety programmes too are supported by the IAEA through its technical cooperation programme and the partnership through the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. This helps countries to use nuclear-related laboratory methods to monitor pesticide and veterinary drug levels as well as check for food fraud. In addition, food irradiation can help to keep food safe and to meet import/export standards by reducing the risks of food-borne pathogens and microorganisms and to prevent the transfer of unwanted pests in food supplies. 

To learn more about food safety controls, watch this video on A Health Check For Food, and find more information on food irradiation for improving food safety and quality in this video on Using Nuclear Science in Food Irradiation and an example of it in action in Safer Food for a Growing Population.