On frontier of science for food and agriculture

5 March 2021, Rome – Nuclear weapon tests offer valuable insight into how to measure soil erosion and enable the restoration of healthy soils we need to grow our food.

The caesium-137 (Cs-137) radionuclides released into the atmosphere and spread around the world from nuclear tests conducted more than half a century ago are deposited on the earth’s surface through rain, offering the opportunity to precisely assess the rate of soil erosion, even in in remote areas where no past data is available.

Such isotopic knowledge, produced by the Joint FAO/IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, operated in partnership by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is enabling improved farming practices in countries such as Benin, where smallholder farmers have tripled their yields; and Egypt, where topsoil losses have damaged almost half the arable land. Algeria, Madagascar, Morocco, Tunisia and Zimbabwe are some other countries that have benefited.

Such cutting-edge technologies enable FAO/IAEA joint “atoms for peace” work to add value to global agricultural research that contributes to food security, food safety and rural development worth billions of dollars annually.

“Our nuclear science has a lot to contribute to the Four Betters that guide FAO’s strategy to eradicating hunger and boosting rural development,” says LIANG Qu, Director of the Joint Centre.

FAO Director-General QU Dongyu’s Four Betters – Better Production, Better Nutrition, Better Environment and a Better Life – signal cross-cutting approaches to making the world’s agri-food systems fit for purpose in delivering health, food safety and livelihood benefits for all.

From releasing sterile tsetse flies to sorting the sex of mosquito larvae

The work the Joint Centre conducts across the world and in its state-of-the-art laboratories near Vienna spans the spectrum from food irradiation to ensuring developing countries’ agricultural output meets international phytosanitary standards for trade, to using mutagenesis to enable essential crops to ward off pests and diseases; from releasing sterile insects to suppress and even eradicate some major insect pests, to detecting the presence of harmful chemicals in food. And the list goes on.

The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is a major area in which the Joint Centre has been the global pioneer. It consists of releasing sterile insects to suppress population growth of pests such as the tsetse flies, which drastically reduces cattle welfare and productivity across Africa; or the fruit fly, which is a menace to global trade in fruits and vegetables and therefore a major factor for destroying the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Tropical fruit farmers in Thailand have benefited from an eight-fold increase in exports of premium mango, guava, mangosteen and durian, thanks to the technique introduced by the Joint Centre.

In the area of pest control alone, the Centre currently has 32 active technical cooperation projects underway in the field, as well as a host of research initiatives. Meanwhile, it is broadening the sterile insect technique to grapple with mosquitoes that serve as vectors for human diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Recently it unveiled a process driven by Artificial Intelligence to sort the sex of larvae as early as possible – which matters given their short lifespans.

Set up in 1964, the Centre initially had a small number of agro-nuclear scientists. Today, with an annual operating budget above fifteen millions euros, it has more than 100 scientists and technicians from different countries. Their specialties range from agronomy to nuclear science, from agricultural production to health, from food safety to soil and water management, from insect pest control to nuclear emergency response.

Pandemics and climate change – Stepping up to the challenges

In February 2021, FAO Director-General QU Dongyu and IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi agreed to step up their partnership, signing a document which upgrades what was a Division into a Centre. That, said Qu, should catalyze “even more concrete and impactful collaboration”, while serving as an example, according to Grossi, of how both UN organizations are “growing and adapting to challenges”.

FAO’s Director-General, an advocate of innovation on all fronts, is driving FAO to innovate and develop technologies to face priority issues. “The Centre is the only UN entity with its own laboratories, so the chance for high-level science is extraordinary,” noted the FAO Director-General, a plant biologist himself.

Member support for expanding the laboratory facilities has been very positive – with more than €50 million provided for the Renovation of the Nuclear Applications Laboratories (ReNuAL) project, used to build two new state-of-art laboratory buildings completed in 2019 for FAO/IAEA Agricultural and Biotechnology Laboratories. Agreement to mobilize an additional €26 million has been reached – allowing for further expansion of specialized modern greenhouses and a plant breeding laboratory to develop new crop varieties that cope with changing climate conditions. Other climate-smart agricultural solutions are also being developed. Devising new techniques to measure and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions – both in quantitative and qualitative terms – is also on the agenda.

With strong supports from the Directors-General of both FAO and IAEA, Liang’s team has rolled out a new Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiative to help countries prevent pandemics caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originate in animals and have the potential to spread to humans. The project aims to improve tracing of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases at the animal-human interface, improve understanding of how to survey relevant ecosystems around the world, and help monitor mutant variations of pathogens at the molecular and immunological level, Liang explains.

Last year, the Centre also helped 120 countries with equipment, diagnostic kits and other material to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, in animals. Similar work was done in the past to deal with Ebola Virus Disease, MERS and Zika outbreaks.

The Centre is currently analyzing stable isotopes found in feathers and stool to map the migrations of wild birds, critical clues for understanding the epidemiology and ecology of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, which has proven to be a threat to food security and human lives.

The Centre supports more than 200 national and regional technology-transfer projects, while coordinating applied research that engages more than 400 national and international institutions and experimental stations.

Fingerprinting water

Atom-level isotopic analyses are a promising area of future work.

“Given the complexity of agri-food systems today, precision is critical,” says Liang, who has directed the Centre since 2005. “Take food traceability and authenticity systems, which are increasingly demanded by people to determine the origin and detect economically motivated food adulteration.”

The use of stable isotopes holds high promise for food quality and safety, a cornerstone of health and trade. “All food has water inside, and water is H20,” explains Liang, who has been working in this field for more than three decades. “Oxygen is an atom, so water has a fingerprint, and we can determine exactly where it came from.”

Numerous countries are already using the Centre’s tracing methodology and expertise to weed out misleading claims regarding honey and grass-fed beef. Others, such as China, are obtaining support to find ways to boost the protein absorption rate of dairy cows – an outcome that would be scalable on a planetary level and lead to less feed waste and decreased nitrogen pollution.

Knowledge that powers food safety and security

China has been a beneficiary of FAO’s and IAEA’s work and is now a robust contributor, having graduated to use space-induced mutagenesis – cosmic rays are stronger in space – to develop hundreds of new crop varieties, including Luyuan 502, a drought and disease-resistant wheat strain that typically yields 11 per cent more than traditional kinds and is now planted on more than 3.6 million hectares, an area roughly the size of Belgium.

In Bangladesh, the Centre has catalyzed development and adoption of rice varieties that better fit the country’s ecosystem endowment, helping the country feed its growing population and even export regionally.

“Mutation allows us to foster more and better-adapted characteristics for key plants and animals,” Liang says. “Biodiversity is also about intra-species richness – with genetic resources, more is better.”

The FAO-IAEA Joint Centre has an ample portfolio of plant and crop breeding initiatives, including new projects that focus on major global foods such as coffee, olives, cassava and teff.

The Centre also develops and transfers analytical techniques for rapid and cost-effective detection of a wide range of chemical hazards such as residues resulting from controlling diseases in animals. This has greatly benefited consumer protection and promoted trade in a number of Members, including Benin, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Senegal, Seychelles, Thailand and Uganda, among others.

“Our model is to disseminate knowledge and the capacity to use it,” says Liang.

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