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DEVELOPMENT: New Food Must Go Nuclear

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - Better crops on the one hand, and nuclear power on the other might be, you would think, at extreme ends of the technological, and for some, even the moral spectrum. But it could be time to make agriculture more nuclear.

A lot of it is, already. Hundreds of millions of hectares of cultivation around the world is already nuclear assisted. And this technology goes back all of 80 years. Now the world needs this as never before, nuclear and agricultural scientists say.

"Currently there are over 3,000 officially released crop varieties that have involved radiation induced mutations, and over 100 countries routinely make use of this technology, which is one of their favourite strategies for crop improvement," Chikelu Mba, head of the plant breeding unit at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told IPS in an interview in London. The IAEA is promoting use of nuclear techniques for new crop mutations jointly with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

"These crops, grown all over the world, now form an integral part of our daily diet. They are raw materials in industries, and give countries billions of dollars in additional income for farmers."

Essentially, the technique treats seeds with x-rays and gamma rays to produce new mutations of crops that are better resistant to difficult conditions and changing climate. Nature would of itself produce new mutations of crops to adapt to changing conditions, but only in time, and a long time at that. But this technique can speed up that change dramatically, here and now.

"Once seeds have been irradiated, the seedlings are integrated into normal crop breeding procedures of the countries," says Mba. "Compared to any other technology you could think about, this is cheap, cost effective, robust, environmentally friendly, and based on results. It is proven, and it is applicable anywhere in the world."

But a frightening thought, nevertheless, to think of a meal made possible by something nuclear. And the thought raises the ghost of genetically modified (GM) crops, that this could be another, and far bigger instance of misusing science to fool around with nature.

Mba says the world can rest – and eat – assured.

"There is nothing that can be produced through radiation induced mutation that is not within the spectrum of possibilities of what nature can bring out in that crop, given sufficient space and time. All radiation induced mutation is doing is to facilitate a naturally occurring phenomenon." And there is no residual radiation left in a plant after the mutation induction, he says.

Dinner can include a newly developed strain of rice using nuclear induced mutation, but the ingredients in the rice preparation will not be nuclear.

This technology can be critical in addressing world hunger and food security, the IAEA says. It leads to plant varieties that are not just high yielding but adapt to harsh climate conditions and are resistant to certain diseases and insect pests. "The IAEA is urging a revival of nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger," IAEA director general Dr Mohamed ElBaradei said in a statement. He has asked for allocation of more resources around the world for use and development of this technology.

The IAEA and the FAO together say that in addition to 850 million people worldwide already going hungry, a million more are being pushed below the one-dollar-a-day poverty level. Increased use of this new technology can improve health and livelihood, they say.

In Japan, the Institute of Radiation Breeding has figured that crops developed with radiation induced mutations have yielded 62 billion dollars in returns, for an investment of 69 million dollars between 1959 and 2001. That amounts to a 900 fold return. In Pakistan, use of the technique quadrupled cotton production in ten years. China and the U.S. are the other countries where the technology is in widespread use.

But the technology has still not been used as widely as it ought to be, scientists say. "In 1928 it was found that x-rays would change the blueprint of plants in a manner in which that which is hidden can become obvious and be used to create new crop varieties," says Mba. And it was in 1964 that the IAEA and the FAO came together and set up a joint programme for using nuclear techniques in food and agriculture to "mimic nature." Now, he says, given the recent agricultural shocks, "we can no longer wait for chance discoveries to give us new crop varieties."

The IAEA, he said, is calling the attention of the world to the looming threat of global climate change and variation. "This year, prices of all basic foodstuff went to their highest level in the past 50 years, and this situation is only going to get worse," Mba says.

"The countries most at risk are their developing countries, with their fragile ecosystems, with their agriculture that is rudimentary, no effective irrigation, where farmers do not have enough resources to buy fertilisers. So when the environment changes so much, there will not be enough resilience in the crops to withstand these new conditions."

The IAEA, he said, is "calling for a revival of culture, if you may, of supporting agriculture."

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