by Monish Gunawardana*
Nuclear power can be used to wipe out our civilization within a few minutes. In 1945, two atom bombs wiped out millions of civilians in two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, our planet houses nearly 22,000 nuclear weapons. But let us discuss how to employ nuclear technology to bring food to all people.
Radioisotopes are are used in agriculture to control pests, study fertilizer or prevent waste of grain in stores. At the beginning, isotopes were mainly used for medical diagnosis, with the patient being given the radioisotopes in a chemical form to concentrate in the organ to be studied. The radiation can then be easily detected outside the patient's body by a scanner.
Improving agricultural productivity by utilizing advanced technology is crucial to guarantee food security for all. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recognized that nuclear energy can improve development, including agriculture, horticulture, forestry and improved levels of nutrition. The FAO and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) work hand in hand in promoting nuclear-related technologies to achieve these goals.
The IAEA promotes radioisotopes to study the growth and nutrient needs of agricultural crops in dry areas. These studies help agricultural scientists to introduce efficient water management systems and crop varieties to water-deficient lands. The FAO has introduced some fertilizers labeled with nitrogen-isotopes (15N), to use and identify the best growing conditions for crops in dry lands in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal.
Inadequate preventive maintenance generates leakages in the irrigation schemes, while poor irrigation management makes soil saline (saltiness of the soil). Around 40 percent of the world's food is grown utilizing irrigation schemes and 10 percent of agricultural lands in the world have become unproductive by salinity. However, the above-mentioned nuclear-scientific interventions help drought-ridden nations to grow food successfully.
IAEA encourages radioisotope techniques to improve fertilizer applications. It could estimate the exact amount of water and nutrients needed for a certain crop. The optimal use of fertilizers and water helps farmers to grow food with good quality at lower production costs. The application of fertilizers via major irrigation schemes and minor waterways within the farmland can bring many benefits to the farmer. Some of those benefits are saving water, nitrogen fertilizers,labour and farm implements' costs.
Radiation techniques can control pests and insects that destroy food crops. It is used to rear insects en masse and sterilise them with gamma radiation. Then, these unproductive insects are released to compete with wild males for mating. Over time, this nuclear-based technique begins to eradicate insects that are harmful to agricultural crops.
Using Sterile Insects Techniques (SIT), Guam and Marian's islands have eradicated fruit flies. In 2001, the FAO, IAEA and World Health Organization extended SIT programmes to 37 Sub-Saharan African countries to control the Tsetse Fly that causes sleeping sickness and cattle diseases like Magana, which cause US$4 billion economic losses per year.
With the help of nuclear radiation, IAEA/FAO agricultural scientists have introduced nearly 400 varieties of high-yield and disease-resistant rice to Vietnam and other rice -producing countries. This is done by changing the inherited characteristics of plants exposed to radiation.
Protein-rich wheat in India and high-yield rice and early maturing soya beans in Japan are some examples of the new generation of plants bred by radiation technology. These new breeds of plants consume less water, fertilizer and time to produce grains, fruits or vegetables. In addition, they are more resistant to pests and diseases than traditional crops. Therefore, the new strain of plants produced by nuclear applications would trim down the production costs of agriculture and improve the food security of many nations, predominantly in the developing countries.
The Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research at Kalppakkam in India, using nuclear tools, introduced advanced varieties of green grams, black grams and red grams. Moreover, it introduced tissue culture in sugarcane in Maharastra region.
Around two billion of people around the world do not have easy access to safe drinking water. They use contaminated water sources. Because of that, water-borne diseases could increase the poverty of developing nations. Under the guidance of the IAEA and FAO, hydrologists using nuclear means try to locate and protect springs and other water sources. Their tool is the isotope. For instance, in an area in Uganda, a community spring began to generate contaminated water. Isotope hydrologists found the source for the spring as a swamp in the mountain. After that they took steps to protect the swamp. Now that spring water is safe and clean.
In Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a few years ago people began to complain about the contaminated ground water. Hydrologists using nitrogen-isotopes identified the reason as the worn-out underground sewage network of the area.
Industrialized nations and emerging economic powers in Asia have recognized the great significance of nuclear applications in agriculture, industries, medicine, water and power supply. The nuclear-scientific approach is a viable solution for global socio-economic advancement.
*Professor, International University of Management, Namibia
June 12, 2007
by Monish Gunawardana*