The FAO / IAEA Joint Nuclear Engineering Center works on a broad spectrum of supporting food safety and security
March 5, 2021, Rome – The nuclear weapons test offers valuable insight into how to measure soil erosion and enables the restoration of the healthy soil we need to grow our food.
The cesium-137 (Cs-137) radionuclide released into the atmosphere and spread around the world from nuclear tests carried out more than half a century ago is deposited on the Earth’s surface through rain, offering the opportunity to precisely assess the extent of soil erosion, even in localities. remote where no past data are available.
Knowledge of such isotopes, generated by FAO / IAEA Joint Center for Nuclear Engineering 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), enables better agricultural practices in countries such as Benin, which is owned by small farmers their yields increased threefold; and Egypt, where topsoil loss has damaged nearly half of the arable land. Algeria, Madagascar, Morocco, Tunisia and Zimbabwe are some of the other countries that have benefited.
Such cutting-edge technology enables FAO / IAEA “atom for peace” cooperation to add value to global agricultural research that contributes to food security, food security and rural development worth billions of dollars each year.
“Our nuclear science has many contributions to Four Betters guiding FAO’s strategy to eradicate hunger and promote rural development,” said LIANG Qu, Director of the Joint Center.
Four Betters from FAO QU Dongyu Director General – Better Production, Better Nutrition, Better Environment and Better Lives – signify a cross-cutting approach to making the world’s agri-food systems fit for purpose delivering health, food security and livelihood benefits for all.
Starting from the release of sterile tsetse flies to sorting the sex of mosquito larvae
The work carried out by the Joint Center around the world and in state-of-the-art laboratories near Vienna covers the spectrum from food irradiation to ensuring agricultural produce of developing countries meets international phytosanitary standards for trade, to using mutagenesis to enable essential crops to ward off pests and diseases; from releasing sterile insects to suppressing and even eradicating some of the major insect pests, to detecting the presence of harmful chemicals in food. And the list goes on.
Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is a key area where the Joint Center has become a global pioneer. This consists of releasing sterile insects to suppress population growth of pests such as the tsetse fly, which drastically reduces the welfare and productivity of livestock across Africa; or fruit flies, which are a threat to the global fruit and vegetable trade and therefore a major factor destroying the livelihoods of small farmers. Tropical fruit growers in Thailand has benefited from an eightfold increase in exports of premium mango, guava, mangosteen and durian, thanks to techniques introduced by the Joint Center.
In the area of pest control alone, the Center currently has 32 active technical cooperation projects underway in the field, as well as a number of research initiatives. Meanwhile, expanding sterile insect techniques to fight mosquitoes which are vectors of human diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Recently launched a process that Artificial Intelligence is driving to sort by gender larvae as early as possible – which is important given their short life span.
Founded in 1964, the Center initially had a small number of agro-nuclear scientists. Today, with an annual operating budget of over fifteen million euros, it has more than 100 scientists and technicians from various countries. Their specialties range from agronomy to nuclear science, from agricultural production to health, from food safety to land and water management, from insect pest control to nuclear emergency response.
Pandemics and climate change – Increasing challenges
In February 2021, Director General of FAO QU Dongyu and Director General of the IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi agreed to increase their partnership, signed documents that upgraded what was once the Division to become the Center. That, Qu said, should catalyze “more concrete and impactful collaboration”, while setting an example, according to Grossi, of how the two UN organizations “grow and adapt to challenges”.
The FAO Director General, an advocate of innovation on all fronts, encourages FAO to innovate and develop technology to address priority issues. “This center is the only UN agency with its own laboratory, so the opportunities for advanced science are tremendous,” said the Director General of FAO, a plant biologist.
Member support for expanding laboratory facilities has been very positive – with more than € 50 million provided for the Nuclear Applications Laboratory Remodeling (ReNuAL) project, used to construct two state-of-the-art laboratory buildings completed in 2019 for the FAO / IAEA Agricultural and Biotechnology Laboratory. An agreement to mobilize an additional € 26 million has been reached – enabling further expansion of specialized modern greenhouses and plant breeding laboratories to develop new crop varieties that address changing climatic conditions. Other climate smart agricultural solutions are also being developed. Designing new techniques for measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions – both quantitatively and qualitatively – are also on the agenda.
With the strong support of the FAO and IAEA Directors General, the Liang team has launched the Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC) initiatives to help countries prevent pandemics caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi or viruses that originated in animals and could potentially spread to humans. The project aims to improve traceability for infectious diseases that re-emerge and reappear at the animal-human interface, increase understanding of how to survey relevant ecosystems around the world, and help monitor mutant variation of pathogens at the molecular and immunological levels, Liang explained.
Last year, the Center also assisted 120 countries with equipment, diagnostic equipment and other materials 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 the plague.
The center is currently analyzing the stable isotopes found in feathers and feces to map them migratory wild birds, an important clue to understanding the epidemiology and ecology of High Pathogenic Avian Influenza, which is a proven threat to food security and human life.
The Center supports more than 200 national and regional technology transfer projects, while coordinating applied research involving more than 400 national and international agencies and experimental stations.
Atomic level isotope analysis is a promising field of work for the future.
“Given the complexity of the current agri-food system, accuracy is critical,” said Liang, who has led the Center since 2005. “Take for example the traceability and authenticity of food systems, which are increasingly demanded by people to determine the origin and detect economically motivated food. forgery. “
The use of stable isotopes promises food quality and safety, a cornerstone of health and trade. “All food has water in it, and water is H20,” explains Liang, who has worked in this area for more than three decades. “Oxygen is an atom, so water has a fingerprint, and we can determine exactly where it came from.”
Many countries have used tracing methodologies and expertise from the Center to get rid of misleading claims regarding honey and grass-fed beef. Others, such as China, is gaining support to find ways to increase protein uptake rates from dairy cows – a result that is scalable at the planetary level and leads to less feed waste and reduced nitrogen pollution.
Knowledge that strengthens food security and security
China has been a beneficiary of the work of the FAO and IAEA and is now a strong contributor, having graduated to use space-induced mutagenesis – more powerful cosmic rays in outer space – to develop hundreds of new crop varieties, including Luyuan 502, drought and disease. – a resistant wheat strain that normally produces 11 percent more than traditional varieties and is now planted on more than 3.6 million hectares, an area roughly the size of Belgium.
In Bangladesh, the Center has catalyzed the development and adoption of rice varieties more suited to the support of the country’s ecosystem, helping the country feed its growing population and even exporting regionally.
“The mutations allow us to develop more and better adapt characteristics for major plants and animals,” said Liang. “Biodiversity is also about intra-species richness – with genetic resources, the more the better.”
The center also develops and transfers analytical techniques for the fast and cost-effective detection of various chemical hazards such as residues resulting from disease control in animals. This greatly benefits consumer protection and promotes trade in a number of Members, including Benin, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Senegal, Seychelles, Thailand and Uganda.
“Our model is to spread knowledge and the capacity to use it,” said Liang.
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