Going Climate-Smart: IAEA Marks World Food Day

‘The climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too’. This is the global message for World Food Day 2016. Almost 795 million people in the world are undernourished, according to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Out of these, the majority live in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their food and income.

Demand for food will only grow as the world population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. At the same time, higher temperatures and more frequent environmental disasters put pressure on agriculture and food systems, which must, in turn, be adapted to deal with the adverse effects of climate change and become more resilient, productive and sustainable.

To address this challenge, the IAEA, in partnership with FAO, is supporting countries in using climate-smart agricultural practices to prevent projected global food shortages. Through their joint Programme on Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, the two organizations assist countries in improving their agricultural practices with nuclear and related technologies to adapt to climate change while still producing more food and protecting natural resources.

This article summarizes the impact of several recent projects in this area.

Stronger crops

Nuclear science helps farmers around the world boost their produce as changes in climate make it difficult for traditional varieties to grow. In Iraq, for example, warmer temperatures and less rainfall since the early 2000s have made the land more susceptible to erosion, affecting the country’s rain-fed agriculture and the wheat-producing provinces.

With the help of experts from the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, scientists in the country have found solutions to these challenges through mutation-induced plant breeding. This technique involves exposing plant seeds and cuttings to radiation to induce natural genetic variability and then select the improved traits of interest.

As a result, Iraqi scientists have developed four improved varieties of traditional crops that tolerate both drought and salty soil – typical soil conditions in dry areas that hinder plant growth. Almost 65% of the wheat produced in Iraq today comes from these new varieties. Read more about plant breeding in Iraq and how it is making a difference or watch how mutation breeding works.

Moving women farmers out of poverty

Agriculture is the primary source of income and livelihood for up to 80% of Sudan’s population. But due to shortages in water supplies caused in part by warming temperatures and climate change, growing food crops is difficult.

Thanks to a drip irrigation project that started in 2015, women farmers in Kassala, eastern Sudan, are now growing vegetables using climate-smart agricultural methods. Local scientists worked with experts from the Joint FAO/IAEA Division to use nuclear science to optimize water and fertilize use through drip irrigation. They then helped to set up these irrigation systems and train the local woman in how to use them. Now the women run their own small-scale farms and home gardens to feed their families, their neighbours and their wallets. Read more about how hundreds of women are now benefiting from this, or watch this animation.

Healthy animals, healthy food

Millions of people depend on livestock for food and income, but diseases kill many animals and can spread to neighbouring farms and countries. Animal diseases are also more likely to emerge as climate conditions become more favourable for diseases to spread and for disease-carrying insects to breed. To prevent this, veterinary personnel can use nuclear-derived techniques to help detect and contain outbreaks.

In Botswana, thanks to the support of the IAEA and the FAO, scientists now have the tools they need to quickly and effectively diagnose animal diseases to prevent their spread. These nuclear-derived techniques have proven essential for helping the country to remain mostly free from dangerous animal diseases. This has allowed Botswana’s beef industry to continue to grow and export to other countries, while also protecting local farmers who rely on livestock for food and income. Read more about how Botswana is successfully controlling animal diseases.

Saving the orange

In some regions, climate change brings warmer and moister conditions, which are often a breeding ground for insect pests. Many insects that previously could not survive in certain regions can now tolerate these areas due to raising temperatures, which creates a problem for farmers and their crops. Insect pests can cause farmers to lose millions of dollars when the insects attack crops. This was the case in South Africa until they started using the sterile insect technique.

By 2005, a pest called the false coddling moth had spread rapidly in parts of South Africa, bringing the citrus industry to the brink of extinction. A nuclear technique designed to control and shrink the insect population helped the multi-billion dollar industry protect its products and rebuild. Read more about how the Western Cape turned its fate around or watch how the sterile insect technique (SIT) works.

Addressing the issue at its heart

Agriculture contributes to over 20% of the global release of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. Increased amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause global warming, which drives climate change. To help chart out ways to reduce these emissions, and in turn combat climate change, scientists are using isotopic techniques to understand and develop more climate-smart agricultural practices.

Soil and environmental conditions and farm management practices each have an impact on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture. Scientists from around the world are working together through projects supported by the Joint FAO/IAEA Division to collect data on how these different factors interact. By finding ways to strike a balance in how fertilizer, water and soil are used with agricultural crops, scientists aim to develop scientifically-based guidelines countries can use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deal with climate change. Read more about how they are working to strike this balance and how nuclear techniques make a difference.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency.