Nuclear science and technology play a key role in helping improve global access to a safe, secure, and high-quality food supply. Scientists and farmers are continually developing new ways to cultivate crops and raise livestock using nuclear technologies—technologies which have been proven safe and effective.
When it comes to agriculture, nuclear techniques can make an exponential difference before seeds are even planted. One such technique facilitates the breeding of hardier plant varieties. This is done by exposing them to radiation and selecting mutations that make them more likely to survive and flourish; for example, by better withstanding drought conditions or providing higher levels of nutrition. These plants have been proven to be completely safe and free from lingering radiation. In Indonesia, for example, more than 35 new varieties of crops, including soybeans and rice, have been modified to produce more yield, even when they are grown in unfavorable climates. Higher quality crops and produce—like the popular Rio Red grapefruit, which was produced by the Texas A&M University Citrus Center—can also be developed using radiation-induced plant breeding.
Once crops start to grow, farmers use other techniques to maximize their yield. For example, tracing isotopes in water, fertilizer, and soil can reveal whether these resources are being used efficiently rather than lost to the environment, such as through runoff or evaporation. In Kenya, farmers successfully converted to drip irrigation after analyzing water use efficiency with such nuclear techniques, thereby reducing the amount of water needed to produce their crops.
Sometimes, nuclear techniques aren’t about improving growth, but about stopping the growth of harmful organisms. The radiation-based Sterile Insect Technique helps reduce populations of pests that damage crops or livestock. In Mexico, the Moscafrut Fruit Fly Facility produces hundreds of millions of sterile fruit flies each week by irradiating them and then releasing the sterile flies into local citrus and mango crops. There, the sterile flies mate with local pests, thus reducing the number of future offspring. Similarly, in the Western Cape of South Africa, sterilized false codling moths are introduced, reducing the amount of damage these pests inflict on citrus production. This same Sterile Insect Technique can also be used to reduce other pests, such as mosquitos and tsetse flies, that plague livestock.
Even after crops are harvested, nuclear science and technology have a key role in improving food abundance and quality. For years, food irradiation has been used to improve food safety and increase the shelf life of produce. It does so by killing microorganisms and pests that cause illness and rot, all without leaving any residual radiation behind. Meanwhile, analyzing the isotope composition of produce can authenticate a product’s origin and prevent food fraud, especially when it comes to highly valued foods, like regional coffee. Similarly, watered-down or polluted foods, such as fresh vegetable oil that has been mixed with reused vegetable oil, can be monitored by measuring the isotope composition.
There are other ways nuclear science and technology help protect animal livestock. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization and International Atomic Energy Agency partnered to establish a network of veterinary laboratories, called VETLAB, composed of labs across Asia and Africa. VETLAB identifies and tracks the spread of diseases that threaten livestock using nuclear-derived diagnostic techniques, thus helping farmers contain these diseases as soon as possible. Nuclear-derived techniques are also used to validate vaccines that are used to combat animal disease.
Oceans serve as another vital source of food, and, just as in agriculture, nuclear science and technology can help ensure that the bountiful supply of food provided by the oceans is high-quality and safe to consume. Nuclear techniques are also used to identify the extent and sources of pollution, thereby enabling better protection of critical feeding grounds for fish.
Nuclear science and technology can and do play a key role in providing humanity with safer, higher quality, and more bountiful food.
Through these techniques and many others, nuclear science and technology can and do play a key role in providing humanity with safer, higher quality, and more bountiful food. Access to these important tools is facilitated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Parties to the Treaty have access to these technologies through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which serves as a leader in the development and delivery of several of these nuclear applications. The United States is proud to help IAEA Member States address food security issues through increased access to nuclear technologies and has contributed more than $132 million through the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative (PUI) since it was first established in 2010. Through further collaboration, and thanks to innovations in nuclear science and technology, we can all do our part to fight hunger across the globe.
About the Author: Dr. Janet Chen is a Contractor in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and was an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Science and Technology Policy Fellow.