Nuclear technologies support food, agriculture and the SDGs

FAO Deputy Director-General Semedo hails successful partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency

28 November 2018, Vienna - Innovation and technology are critical tools to achieving FAO's vision of a world free from hunger and malnutrition, Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo said today, pointing to cutting-edge scientific applications in plant breeding and pest control that have contributed to improving livelihoods for millions of the world's rural poor.

More scientific advances are needed in order for our food systems to "produce more - and better - with less," she said in an address to the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology.

Development of and access to nuclear techniques applied to food and agriculture are a necessary component in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals, whose achievement requires putting the world's 2.5 billion family farmers - who produce the bulk of our food - at the center by creating an enabling environment to unlock their potential to prosper and innovate, she added.

Semedo hailed the nearly 55-year-long partnership between FAO and the conference's host, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), noting it has improved the sustainable development of food and agriculture systems in areas including food safety, climate resilience pest and disease control and enhanced animal production.

The conference, which lasts through Friday, is co-chaired by Costa Rica and Japan, features panel discussions on issues ranging from human health and nutrition, water management, climate change and gender. Speakers include Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, United Nations Industrial Organization Director-General Li Yong, and senior officials and experts from governments and research institutions around the world.


Through a Joint Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, FAO and the IAEA pool resources to manage agriculture and biotechnology laboratories, research and development activities, scientific networks and to promote technology transfer and capacity building initiatives.

"While technology plays a central role in providing novel and practical solutions, innovation is about process, institutions, policies and knowledge," Semedo said, adding that this was also the consensus driving the first-ever International Symposium on Agricultural Innovation for Family Farmers held at FAO headquarters in Rome last week.

The agencies' joint division operates with a team of about 100 scientists, technical experts and support personnel as well as running research facilities at Seibersdorf, where a new laboratory was inaugurated this week.

Among the division's recent achievements was the rapid elimination from the Dominican Republic of the Mediterranean fruit fly, which had led to trade interruptions that put 30,000 jobs at risk. The eradication was made possible due to the division's work on improving the sterile insect technique to cull invasive insect pests.

A longer-term programme in Pakistan for developing mutant cotton varieties - able to withstand high temperatures and heavy rains and to resist local pests and diseases has led to a broad adoption by farmers of new crop varieties that have had an economic impact amounting to $6 billion.

"Nuclear science and technology have added comparative and competitive value to conventional approaches in all areas of food and agriculture," Semedo said.

Methods such as isotope measurement hold high promise in the growing area of traceability, which in turn is to assure food safety along increasingly complex agricultural value chains.
FAO and IAEA are also working together now to develop methods to trace the use of antimicrobials through the human food chain in order to combat the rapid surge in antimicrobial resistance.

The conference offers numerous examples of how sophisticated science - be it by using isotopic techniques to find water resources and monitor land degradation, or using radiation technology to preserve cultural heritage as well as fashion high-performance materials for industry - can help ordinary people contribute.

Photo: ©FAO/Kai Wiedenhoefer
Samples of rice seedlings from a study in the Seibersdorf laboratory.