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Scientists target better seeds for the poor
From tiny plant samples in a small laboratory comes the potential to improve the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in South America.

As part of a project involving nuclear techniques, scientists in Peru are taking samples of barley, the high-protein grain quinoa, and the kiwicha crop, and attempting to make varieties that are higher yielding and more disease-resistant.

This is done via mutation, where plants are exposed to small doses of gamma rays. Mutation is a natural process that happens over millions of years, and the scientists simply work to speed up the process.

Improving crops that are typically grown by the poor can make a big difference in regions like the Peruvian Andes, where many people live on less than US$2 a day, malnutrition is endemic and the vast majority rely on agriculture as their source of food.

On account of the harsh environment, "the Andes area of Peru is amongst the poorest in Latin America. The problem is that the people haven’t been able to sustain agricultural production, they haven't been able to rely on farming any more," says Manoela Miranda, a plant molecular biologist for the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme, based in Vienna, Austria.

"They want to stay on their land; they’ve been there for generations and it’s where they feel they belong. They just need the right conditions and that’s what we’re trying to provide."

The Joint Programme is a partnership between FAO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, deploying nuclear techniques such as mutation induction to increase crop yields and help improve food security.

In a new project under the local supervision of Dr. Luz Gomes Pando, a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, in Lima, who has been working on improving crop varieties for the past 30 years, the Joint Programme offers technical advice and helps to train Peruvian scientists at leading laboratories worldwide.

There is an emphasis in these projects on involving farmers from an early stage, initially with demonstration plots showing the types of seeds and how to plant them.

Previous projects by the Joint Programme and the university have developed barley varieties that mature earlier and grow shorter, thereby helping overcome factors such as harsh weather, poor soils and wind erosion, and guaranteeing better harvests.

Varieties have also been developed that require less pesticide and fertilizer, which cuts farmers' costs while benefiting the environment.
Focus on the issues: How hi-tech nuclear science is feeding the poor

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FAO/K. Wiedenhofer

Plant molecular biologist Manoela Miranda explains how higher-yielding varieties of barley will help farmers stave off the threat of poverty and hunger.

FAO/K. Wiedenhofer

Scientists study barley samples before exposing them to small doses of gamma rays to try and create new varieties that are more disease-resistant.

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