Resilience and adaptation to climate change

The resilience of global agricultural systems to climate change and their ability to recover will determine the prospects of global food security. Nuclear techniques can be used to induce variability in crops, enhance animal productivity, track insect pests and animal diseases, and provide information essential to develop forecast models.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines resilience as the ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions.

Rising temperatures and extreme weather events are increasingly affecting food security, because they have a negative impact on the productivity of crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. The changing climate also influences the emergence and re-emergence of vector-borne diseases. The management of agricultural systems and natural resources needs to be urgently improved to ensure that farming communities and practices are sufficiently resilient and sustainable to cope with the impacts of climate change. This includes the early and rapid identification of disease vectors and pathogens, and the containment of transboundary animal and zoonotic diseases.

Agricultural activities are by nature prone to numerous risks and uncertainties, be they abiotic (such as water, light, radiation, temperature, humidity or soil), biotic (including pests and diseases), or a result of prevailing cultural or economic conditions. Many of these risks have a climatic component and most of them will be affected by climate change, either in intensity, scope or frequency.

Together with the FAO, the IAEA aims to optimise and strengthen the capacities of Member States in using nuclear and isotopic techniques, which can help improve agricultural resilience and the adaptation to climate change.

Nuclear techniques strengthen resilience to climate change

Nuclear and related techniques are used to induce variability in crops that make them tolerant to drought, salinity or pests. Similar techniques are applied to characterise the genetic makeup of indigenous and locally adapted animals that may combine the potential for high productivity and tolerance to local diseases. These techniques also help determine the spread and abundance of insect pests and animal and zoonotic diseases. Such information can be vital for preparedness and rapid response measures, such as forecast models to rapidly respond to the spread of pests and diseases.Variations in the isotopic signatures of carbon 13 in soils are used in combination with fallout radionuclides to identify sources of land degradation in agricultural landscapes so that steps can be taken to control soil erosion. Carbon-13 is also used to quantify the contribution of crop residues to the improvement of soil fertility and resilience, and to minimise soil erosion.

The nitrogen-15 technique is used to quantify the extent of atmospheric nitrogen capture by leguminous crops and the contribution of nitrogen fertilizer to current and subsequent crops.

Gamma ray and X-ray irradiation are used to sterilise pest insects for release in pest management programmes involving the sterile insect technique, to attenuate(weaken) pathogens for the production of animal vaccines and to develop mutant crop varieties with increased tolerance to abiotic and biotic stress.