How hi-tech nuclear science is feeding the poor
The hi-tech and often baffling field of nuclear technology may seem a world away from the poorest developing world farmers and families struggling to make a dollar a day.
Yet nuclear methods applied to agriculture are enabling millions of these farmers to grow more crops and rear healthier livestock. Since most of the world's 854 million hungry people live in rural areas where agriculture is the main livelihood, such technology can have a direct impact on poverty and hunger.
In addition, despite public concern over nuclear technology, such methods have passed rigorous safety checks – in fact they increase the safety of food while benefiting the environment.
Since 1964, FAO and the International Atomic Energy Agency have harnessed such technology to help promote food security, through the Vienna-based Joint FAO/IAEA Programme.
“Nuclear technology defies the senses; people cannot touch, smell or feel the material, and this often evokes a fear of such methods,” says Gabriele Voigt, Director of the Agency’s Laboratories at Seibersdorf, outside Vienna, a nerve-centre of research and training.
“The irony is that such technology can make food safer and benefit the environment, while ensuring the hungriest are fed. We’re opening a magic door and the positive impacts are clear.”
Creating better crops
For example, scientists use a method called irradiation to create crop varieties that are more disease-resistant and grow better in poor soils, a massive benefit to countries across drought-prone Africa, where the poorest farmers try to survive on the most marginal lands.
Food also can be made safer through irradiation, which destroys bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella in foods, while leaving no radioactive traces. The safety and effectiveness of this method has been declared by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international standards body administered by FAO and the World Health Organization, which comprises government-designated experts.
Irradiation as a post-harvest treatment for horticultural products also benefits the environment – it provides a safer alternative to methyl bromide, which the large majority of countries have agreed to phase out by 2010 due to its harmful impact on the ozone layer.
Nuclear techniques can also be used to detect excessive pesticide or veterinary drug residues in food and monitor implementation of good agricultural and veterinary practices.
There are numerous other areas where nuclear technology helps the environment. For example, one technique suppresses, or in some situations even eradicates, insect pests by the systematic release of sterilized males of the species – a type of birth control. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides that can harm other organisms and soils. Another example involves a nuclear technique that measures water storage and tracks water and nutrients in soil, reducing wastage of these valuable commodities.
Two agencies better than one
Qu Liang, Director of the Joint Programme, says: “This is one of the best examples of effective cooperation between two UN agencies, with a direct combination of agricultural expertise and nuclear science.
“In its simplest terms, FAO can provide practical information from the field, for example reporting the effects of soil erosion on crops and ultimately the local people, and the IAEA can apply the scientific expertise on how we might address it.”
The Joint FAO/IAEA Programme works with member countries in researching and introducing new crop varieties, pest treatments or food-testing methods among other things.
It also trains scientists from developing countries each year at its lab at Seibersdorf, near Vienna, who then return to their countries to put appropriate nuclear methods into practice.
Mr Liang adds: “We investigate, give advice, guidance and training to international scientists, and help coordinate early efforts to implement work. But it is for countries to take up these projects and maintain them well into the future.
“We can generate a lot of interest and political will by showing the potential economic benefits, which helps persuade governments to invest in it.”
Vienna, Austria—March 2007
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