For years, scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been using radiation to produce improved high-yielding plants that adapt to harsh climatic conditions such as drought and flood, or that are resistant to certain disease and insect pests. Called "mutation induction," the technique is proven, cost-effective and, remarkably enough, it has been in use since the 1920s.
"The global nature of the food crisis is unprecedented. Families all around the world are struggling to feed themselves," says Mohamed El Baradei, the IAEA's director general. "To provide sustainable, long-term solutions, we must make use of all available resources. Selecting the crops that are better able to feed us in one of humankind's oldest sciences. But we have neglected to give it the support and investment it requires for universal application. The IAEA is urging a revival of nuclear crop breeding technologies to help tackle world hunger."
The IAEA, in partnership with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has assisted its member states to produce more and better food. In plant breeding and genetics, the IAEA's expertise is helping countries around the world to achieve enhanced agricultural output using nuclear technology. Already more than 3,000 crop varieties of some 170 different plant species have been released through the direct intervention of the IAEA. These include barley that grows at an altitude of 5,000m (16,400 ft) and rice that thrives in saline soil.
These variables provide much needed food as well as millions of dollars in economic benefits for farmers and consumers, especially in developing countries.
In Japan alone, the Institute of Radiation Breeding (IRB) calculates that crops developed using mutation induction generated economic returns of nearly $62n against the $69m invested between 1959 and 2001. That translates into a remarkable 900% return on investment. But with increased investment and a broader application, the technology could positively impact the health and livelihood of even greater numbers of people.
Hidden potential in plants
Nature provides every species with the potential to develop many different characteristics-for example, the height of a plant, its yield, its susceptibility or resistance to disease. All of these possibilities are written into a plant's blueprint, its genome, but only a few are expressed. Over a long period of time, a plant can adapt itself to different conditions through a process of spontaneous mutation and natural selection.
It was the survival of certain edible plants amid adverse conditions that first attracted hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. They selected the robust, easy to harvest wild grains, consumed the crop and saved the seeds for planting the following year, Modern plant breeding was born.
"We call spontaneous mutation the motor of evolution," says Pierre Lagoda, head of the FAO/IAEA joint division's plant breeding and genetics section. "If we could live millions of years and survey billions of hectares of land with 100% precision, we would find variants with all of the traits we are looking for but which have mutated naturally. But we can't wait millions of years to find the plants that are necessary now, if we want to feed the world. So with induced mutation, we are actively speeding up the process."
Today, scientists apply mutagens-for example, gamma rays or chemicals-to accelerate the process. Unlike genetic modification (or GM), which introduced new material into a plant's genetic make-up, induced mutation simply accelerates the natural process of spontaneous changes occurring in plants.
Exposure to radiation changes a plant's blueprint at one position in the genetic code, creating a variant that is different from the parent plant. Huge numbers of mutants are produced in the search for desired traits-perhaps a resistance to certain diseases or pests, or an ability to thrive in saline soil or drought conditions. …