Source: BUILDING A BETTER FUTURE: CONTRIBUTIONS OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Department of Research and Isotopes and Division of Public Information, and Kathryn Ronald (consultant).


More than 800 million people, mainly in Africa and Asia, suffer from hunger. Most depend on agriculture for their livelihood; many rely on imported food or relief aid for their very existence.

Developing new Strains of Plants

Many factors affecting plant growth and crop quality, such as drought, insects and disease, are often beyond farmers’ control. While it is difficult to create ideal growing conditions, for the last three decades it has become possible to produce plants that are better “tailored” to thrive in imperfect conditions by drawing on the skills of the plant geneticist and maximising opportunities afforded by radiation technology.

Plant scientists can induce subtle changes or mutations in the genetic make up (DNA) in plant seeds, buds or tissue. By monitoring plant growth, they can identify and select strains with the desired characteristics and develop cultivars for direct use or further cross-breeding. This is the case of science imitating nature. Mutations occur naturally, though extremely rarely, due to factors such as mistakes in DNA replication. Thanks to the controlled use of ionising radiation, this natural diversity can be increased as much as 10,000-fold and the development of new varieties significantly accelerated.

Boosting Soil Productivity

Soil nutrients and water are essential to plant growth, but in many areas of the developing world soils are deficient in key nutrients. Sustainable agriculture depends on maintaining a balance between consuming and conserving soil nutrients and water resources. Stable and radioactive isotopes can play a crucial role in understanding soil-plant interactions and in helping to increase crop production through better soil management.


Isotope studies of lowland rice in Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan and Thailand demonstrated that nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers are used far more effectively when placed below the soil surface. Trials in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Peru and Romania revealed a 20 percent increase in fertiliser uptake when mixed nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers are applied at the optimum time in the growing season.

Based on this and other work, many developing countries have achieved more economical use of fertilisers while avoiding environmental pollution. Today’s research and development work focuses on using organic materials to reduce the need for mineral fertilisers. Nuclear methods are helping to assess crop residues and locally available wastes, including radiation-sterilised sewage sludge, as ecologically sound nutrient sources.


Efficient use of water by crops and pastures is important in the quest for food security. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) are promoting better practices and modern irrigation technologies using sprinklers, mini-sprayers and drippers. Application of the new methods is enhanced with the use of neutron moisture gauges, nuclear-based instruments that accurately measure soil moisture content.

Increasing Output of Meat and Milk


Isotopes provide unique information about the nutrition of farm animals – data that can be used to find better ways of converting animal feeds into milk and meat. In countries where isotope-based concepts have been widely adopted, research has paid handsome dividends in terms of higher animal productivity and improved nutrition and health of consumers.


Better feeding works best with improved animal breeding strategies. The use of radioimmunoassay (RIA) to measure hormones, and thus monitor more closely reproductive processes, has been essential to advancing breeding practices in industrialised countries. RIA makes it possible to determine when animals are ready for breeding, to diagnose pregnancy earlier; to correct health disorders and to improve artificial insemination. These advances have been transferred to many developing countries so that they too can improve their livestock.

Controlling Insect Pests

Inserts reduce food production through both direct damage and the diseases they spread to crops and livestock. Pest control using chemical insecticides is routine and widespread. But pesticides can pollute the environment, contaminate food and water; destroy beneficial insects and even increase resistance in target species.

Nuclear-based techniques can reduce and, in some cases, eradicate insect pests that are harmful.


The Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is an environmentally sound pest-control method. It involves mass rearing of insects and sterilising the males with gamma radiation, followed by their release in target areas. Although the sterile male insects find and mate with wild females, no offspring are produced. With continuing releases, SIT can effectively eradicate insects in a defined area.

SIT has been successfully applied in combating the Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly, which attacks over 250 species of fruit and vegetables. So great is the potential damage of medfly that countries free of it prohibit imports of fresh produce from countries where the pest is endemic.

Improving Food Quality and Safety

About one-quarter of all food produced is lost to insects, bacteria and rodents. Add to this the recurrent illnesses due to food contamination, and it is not surprising that effective food preservation is increasingly critical to food safety and security.


Food irradiation allows the complete disinfestations of grain, spices, vegetable seasonings and dried fruit destined for long-term storage. It also inhibits sprouting, and extends the shelf-life of fresh produce that can spoil in transit. In poultry and red meat, irradiation destroys bacteria associated with food-borne diseases. The carefully controlled radiation comes from either a Cobalt-60 source or from an electron beam accelerator: It is a clean, fast, efficient and energy-saving technology.

Irradiated food does not become radioactive and it does not create residues. By contrast, some chemical treatments not only leave behind toxins, but are harmful to the environment. Methyl bromide, for example, is one of the ozone-depleting substances being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Increasingly, both Governments and the private sector are interested in expanding the use of food irradiation.

Together with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the IAEA and FAO have sponsored extensive research into the safety of irradiated foods. Studies prove that radiation does not reduce the wholesomeness or sensory qualities of food, and there is increasing global recognition that radiation technology can help safeguard public health and reduce trade barriers.








11 - 15 March 2018
Munich, Germany


30 September - 04 October 2018
Prague, Czech Republic