Peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology can help in achieving sustainable agriculture and global food security, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Nuclear science can contribute to fostering crop and livestock breeds, mitigating soil erosion, and improving pest control and water management – such as in Nigeria when water-saving practices helped displaced people grow cucumbers.

The FAO and the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) have agreed to strengthen their commitment to significantly upgrade a collaboration on peaceful nuclear technologies for agri-food systems.

Director of the FAO, Qu Dongyu and IAEA director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi recently toured the laboratories of the Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture in Austria.

The centre’s laboratory units focus on plant breeding and genetics; insect pest control; food safety and control; soil and water management and crop nutrition; and animal production and health.

“The technological achievements of the centre have an impact on the entire supply chain from farmers and producers to consumers, from the lab to the field and kitchen.

“Let’s work together to make full use of the joint centre for the benefit of farmers and consumers,” Qu said, noting that it is a leading example of UN inter-agency co-operation.

Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture

The FAO and the IAEA have been close partners running laboratories together since 1964, before the joint FAO and IAEA Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture was created in Vienna last year, according to Qu Liang, who led the centre for the past 17 years.

Research and development carried out at the centre include the use of cosmic ray neutron sensors to monitor landscape soil moisture, which contributes to improved land management and optimised climate-smart food and agricultural output.

The sensors are able to detect moisture tens of centimeters beneath a surface, and can fill the gap between point soil-moisture readings and the large-scale data provided by remote sensing, the FAO said.

Irradiated vaccines for livestock in Ethiopia – which exports over one million cattle each year – that can inactivate pathogenic microorganisms in livestock and avoid animal disease are developed at the centre today.

The Centre of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture is also researching microplastics using nuclear techniques, which could provide incisive support for efforts to reduce plastic pollution on land and in the sea, the FAO said.

Other themes to which nuclear technologies can contribute are in the realms of food safety, phytosanitary standards required for trade, and origin tracing of specialty products to combat food fraud.

The agreement paves the way for the joint development of a roadmap towards a stronger strategic partnership, including implementation of activities related to the marine environment, physical and chemical sciences, and human health, Qu said.