The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is known for its inspections of nuclear facilities around the world. But it's quite surprising to learn that the IAEA is collaborating with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to apply nuclear science to food security. 'IAEA scientists use radiation to produce improved high-yielding plants that adapt to harsh climate conditions such as drought or flood, or that are resistant to certain diseases and insect pests.' This mutation induction technique has been used for a number of years -- even if I'm discovering this today. More than 3,000 crop varieties of some 170 different plant species have been released through the direct intervention of the IAEA, from rice to barley, and from bananas to grapefruits. But read more...
As an example of crop modified by the IAEA researchers, you can see above a photo of Dr. Mba, Head of the IAEA Plant Breeding Unit, examining mutant banana samples at the IAEA's laboratory at Seibersdorf, Austria. (Photo Credit: D.Calma/IAEA). Here is a link to a much larger version (4,288 x 2,848 pixels, 5.00 MB). For more images, please visit the IAEA's plant breeding photo gallery.
Before going further, here is a quote from Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA. "The global nature of the food crisis is unprecedented. Families all around the world are struggling to feed themselves. To provide sustainable, long-term solutions, we must make use of all available resources. Selecting the crops that are better able to feed us is one of humankind's oldest sciences. But we've neglected to give it the support and investment it requires for universal application. The IAEA is urging a revival of nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger."
Let's continue by reading a longer version of this IAEA press release. Here is another quote from IAEA Deputy Director General Werner Burkart, who heads the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications. "The year 2008 was a wake-up call to the realization that world food production was unsustainable and vulnerable to factors such as climate change and energy demands. The big issues are interlinked. With energy increasingly being produced from corn, soya and other crops, there is growing competition between food, feed and fuel for soil, water and human and financial resources."
So the IAEA is using induced mutation technique as an effective solution to the world's food crisis. Now, let's look at more details about plant breeding. It can be done in several ways: a classical approach which "can take seven to ten years. A breeder looking for pest resistance, for example, might find the characteristic in a wild variety that has poor quality and yield. This will be crossed with a plant that does have good quality and yield, and any offspring combining the desired traits will then be selected and propagated."
You also can use hybrid plants. "Hybrids, the product of crosses, are only as good as the source parents. With many decades of monocultures, the variations amongst candidate parents have become very narrow. This endangers food security as resistance to yet latent biotypes of pests and diseases and extreme weather conditions may have become severely eroded. Additionally, it is becoming increasingly difficult to prospect for plant genetic resources across national boundaries."
Another way is to use nuclear technology. "The solution to both bottlenecks is to artificially induce the variations that plant breeders so obviously need. Mutation induction produces millions of variants. Breeders then have to screen for the desired traits and crossbreed. Nature can help this process. If improved varieties are planted in a diseased field, the survivors will be the resistant ones. Because fewer pesticides are needed for disease and insect resistant crops, they are environmentally friendly and reduce the expenses of poor farmers. But this safe, proven technology still faces some resistance. One reason is public concern surrounding words like radiation and mutation. "I understand that people are suspicious of these technologies, but in our case it´s important to understand that in plant breeding we're not producing anything that´s not produced by nature itself," says Pierre Lagoda[, Head of the FAO/IAEA Joint Division's Plant Breeding and Genetics Section.] "There is no residual radiation left in a plant after mutation induction."
The IAEA document describes several case studies, from rice in Vietnam to golden wheat in Kenya, and from barley in Peru to cassava in Sub-Saharan Africa. It also lists many other projects in many other countries like Algeria, Costa Rica, India or Japan (to name a few). One of the most surprising projects is about Italy. "Pasta, Italy's favourite food, is made with mutant varieties of durum wheat and contributes tens of millions of dollars each year to farmers' income."
For even more information, you can read Atoms for food, an IAEA brochure (PDF format, 16 pages, 866 KB).
Finally, I'm almost certain that these nuclear engineered crops are safe, but I didn't know they were so common. Please drop me a note if you have some concerns.
Sources: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) press release, December 2, 2008; and various websites
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