Crop nutrition

Crops need nutrients for satisfactory growth and quality production. Isotopes help improve crop nutrition and identify crops well-adapted to low soil fertility or particularly efficient at utilising nutrients. This is crucial to optimize yield and quality and to improve the crops’ resilience to climate change.

The nutritional quality of legumes and cereals has a direct effect on human nutrition. In most developed and developing countries, micronutrient deficiency in crops and pastures is widespread, which negatively affects animal and human health.

Jointly with the FAO, the IAEA helps Member States strengthen capacities in using nuclear and isotopic techniques to improve crop nutrition management practices that support the sustainable intensification of crop production and the preservation of natural resources.

Improved crop nutrition for more resilient crops

The improved management of crop nutrients can enhance the bio-availability of macro- and micro-nutrients in crops and grains, a prerequisite for satisfactory crop growth and optimum quantity and quality yields. In addition to water, sunlight and favourable soil conditions, essential nutrients are crucial to optimize crop production and improve the plants’ resilience to climate change.

However, abiotic factors, such as frequent droughts, nutrient mining and salinity, seriously endanger the production of major world food crops and could exacerbate food insecurity. It is estimated that over 77 million hectares of land are devastated each year by drought, salinity and nutrient deficiencies that are brought about by long-term nutrient mining and climate change. There is a clear need to increase the resilience of current food production systems on less fertile soils and in areas most affected by climate change, high temperatures, low rainfall and soil salinity.

The contribution of nuclear and isotopic techniques

Isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus allow the estimation of the amount of alternative source of inorganic nitrogen fixed and added to the soil by legumes, and the amount of carbon fixed by plants and sequestered in soils. They also help trace the movement of applied organic and inorganic fertilizers from the soil to the plant and the environment; evaluate and identify crop genotypes tolerant to drought and salinity; and assess phosphorus dynamics in the plant-soil continuum to improve phosphorous management in agro-ecosystems. Isotopes of zinc, iron and other micro nutrients are used to measure the dynamics of micro-nutrients in soil and crops.