The application of atomic energy in the agriculture of poor countries grows


Isotopes to improve soil fertility, X-rays to produce mutations in crops or molecular markers are some of the nuclear techniques that are increasingly being applied to improve agriculture in developing countries.

This was explained today at an event in Rome by Lee Heng, head of the soil and water management program of the joint division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency. (IAEA).

This specialized team coordinates research projects around the world on the use of atomic energy in agriculture and food, including aspects such as the fight against pests, contamination and food preservation.

Heng highlighted the potential of a stable isotope, nitrogen-15, to determine the amount of fertilizer absorbed by plants and the amount lost to the environment.

"In Africa many farmers do not have the means to buy fertilizers and depend a lot on legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil" and increase its fertility, so they can benefit from this type of technique, said the expert.

He also mentioned other isotopes such as carbon-13, with which to study land degradation and plant tolerance to drought and salinity, or oxygen-18, which makes it possible to separate evaporation and transpiration from crops to know how much water is lost.

With the new techniques, Heng pointed out that they are helping Burma to measure the water quality of Inle Lake, exposed to the discharge of pesticides and toxic substances from the industry, while in Morocco they have carried out a study to measure soil erosion from its sediments.

Another specialist from the same division, Ljupcho Jankuloski, highlighted the controlled use of irradiation that causes a series of mutations in plants and makes them more resistant to adverse environmental factors.

In addition, he said that for years they have been working to "change the protocols so that they can be validated and developed in laboratories in developing countries" techniques such as molecular markers to analyze, for example, the genetics of wheat, coffee, bananas , rice or sorghum against diseases.

Jankuloski pointed out that they are focused on the improvement of crops and their management in contexts of drought, salinity, floods and other emergencies.

Among countries, Vietnam has developed seven climate-adapted rice varieties derived from induced mutations since 2012 that are used by some 100,000 farmers, while Pakistan has created new water-resistant cotton varieties in the past 14 years that they represent up to 25% of the three million hectares dedicated to this crop.

The FAO and IAEA also promote the sterile insect technique, which consists of breeding millions of male insects sterilized by radiation to disperse them in affected areas where they mate with females without producing offspring in order to combat pests such as the tsetse fly or the Fruit.