What is common between the disinfected mummy of Ramses II, and a well acclimatized shiny spike silver boll of cotton? Nothing much, apparently. But if one scraps the surface a little, one can find both benefitting from radiations in some way.

The use of gamma rays and electron beam radiation has been employed to eliminate micro-organisms in mummies; the most famous instance was the treatment of the mummy of Ramses II in Grenoble, France. Likewise, the idea of using radiation for new and better adapted high yield crops has been in use for quite some time apart from its useful applications in industry. However, it was the perception of radiation and isotopes usage only in weaponry and energy that somewhat masked their role in agriculture.

Radioactive isotopes can be applied in a number of ways to solve many problems in the agriculture allowing it to be more efficient. These applications are especially important for developing nations or areas where resources are scarce or poorly managed. Nuclear science and technology can help fight hunger and malnutrition and improve food security and food safety. These benefits had led to their use globally in a variety of ways.

As early as in 1964, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set up a Joint Division to coordinate research projects on the use of isotopes and radiation in agriculture. Using nuclear technologies farmers can conserve soil, water and plant resources, protect crops from damaging insect, pests and grow more food using new crop varieties that are diseases resistant and thrive under changing climatic conditions such as drought and salinity. Farmers become better equipped to protect the health of their livestock and improve animal reproduction and breeding practices while conserving natural resources. The work of this joint division also contributes to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on Zero Hunger and No Poverty.

Realizing the importance of nuclear technology for agriculture, Pakistan did not lag behind in this domain. Under the auspices of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), Atomic Energy Agricultural Research Centre (AEARC) Tando Jam (later upgraded as Nuclear Institute of Agriculture NIA) was inaugurated on November 22, 1963 as the first nuclear- agricultural institute of the country in the province of Sindh. Continuing with this first, three more institutes of agriculture were established in specific agro-climatic zones of the country. Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) Faisalabad in 1972 followed by Nuclear Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Peshawar in 1982. An institute to utilize the biotechnology and genetic engineering research was setup in Faisalabad in1994 as National Institute for Biotechnology &Genetic Engineering (NIBGE). These institutes were mandated and focused to utilize nuclear techniques and radioisotopes for overall development of Agriculture sector. Main areas of research include; developing high yielding well adapted new crop varieties, improving soil fertility through water and nutrient management, economic utilization of saline lands, reduction in pre and post-harvest food losses & livestock health and reproduction.

Plant mutation breeding is the process of exposing the seeds or other parts of a given plant to radiation, such as gamma rays, to induce mutations. The use of radiation essentially enhances the natural process of spontaneous genetic mutations, significantly shortening the time it takes. Through mutation breeding, these institutes have been able to produce 115 varieties of important staple and cash crops like wheat, cotton, rice, oil seed brassica, pulses and beans, etc. The internationally acclaimed variety that revolutionized cotton production in Pakistan was developed at NIAB by the name NIAB-78.

Fertilizers are expensive and if not properly used can cause soil and water pollution. It is important that only the required quantity finds its way into plants and that a minimum is lost to the environment. Radioisotopes are very useful in estimating the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen available in the soil, which helps determine the amount of phosphate and nitrogen fertilizers that should be applied to the soil. The goal is to achieve higher grain yields by optimizing the amount of uptake from the fertilizers. Agri& Biotech Institutes of PAEC have carried out considerable research for optimal use of chemical fertilizers and introduced bio fertilizers for both leguminous and non-leguminous plants with considerable increase in yield.

Radioactive isotopes can also be used to monitor uptake and use of essential nutrients by plants from the soil. Scientists can measure the exact nutrient and water requirements of a crop under particular conditions utilizing isotope markers. The technology is especially useful where soil erosion is a problem and water resources are scarce, such as Pakistan. This has also been focus of many research studies under local conditions at these institutes.

Environment friendly control of insect pest is another area where nuclear techniques are contributing significantly. Sterile insect technique (SIT) involves mass-rearing and induction of sterility in male insects through irradiation before their release in the field. The technique suppresses and gradually eliminates population of insect pest. The SIT technique has proved an effective means of pest management even where mass application of pesticides had failed. Bio-control is another environmental friendly technique involving mass rearing of predatory insects to control insect pests. In Pakistan NIA has been successfully using this technique against sugar cane borers providing both health and monitory benefits to farmers.

Increased use of food irradiation is also driven by concerns about food-borne diseases. The IAEA and FAO are working together with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission to standardize worldwide use of irradiation for food stuffs for preserving natural resources while meeting the challenges of food security. PAEC’s Institute NIFA is utilizing these techniques to preserve food and extend shelf life of local fruits, vegetables and other eatables. The technology of Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) provided to Pak Army by NIFA is one such example and can be extended to natural disaster victims through relevant agencies in geographically challenging far flung areas of harsh climatic zones.

Nuclear techniques help national authorities in over 50 countries to improve food safety by addressing the problem of harmful residues and contaminants in food products and advance their traceability systems with stable isotope analysis. PAEC has developed first accredited laboratory at NIAB to provide such analytical services and already some 40 Pakistani food production and export institutions benefit from the new laboratory. These testing capabilities ensure that they meet international food standards and boost the country’s reputation in the international food trade which could become an integral part of international and local SOPs for food handling in wake of COVID-19 scenario.

As part of its third quarterly report on the state of the economy in 2019, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) noted thatPakistan is among those seven countries who cumulatively account for two-thirds of the world’s under-nourished population. Only 63.1 per cent of the country’s households are “food secure. Alarmingly, of the 36.9pc “food insecure” households in the country, 18.3pc face “severe” food insecurity. In Baluchistan, at least 30 per cent households experience hunger on a chronic basis. This is despite the fact that Pakistan is self-sufficient in major staples.

It seems ironic yet makes sense. We, in Pakistan are endowed with abundant natural resources yet are unable to make an efficient use of these in an environment-friendly way. Through nuclear and other modern biotechnological techniques which are reliable, time tested and driven by locally-available expertise, problems plaguing our agriculture have a chance of getting resolved. These techniques have a substantial advantage over other conventional methods used in agriculture sector.

In the post COVID-19 scenario and in wake of wheat flour shortages, food security and workforce engagement attain renewed priority if we want to keep afloat economically. It is high time that government should focus on revamping and upgrading the agriculture sector, wheat and cotton crops, in particular. The nuclear and other modern biogenetic techniques available in country’s research labs be stream lined into the agriculture extension programmes reaching our farmers. Before we think of any exotic way of improving our agriculture, it would be in fitness of things to disseminate this expertise and techniques to our farmers for truly attaining our goal of food security and sustainable lively hood for our people.

We may not require nuclear techniques to clean up mummies here in Pakistan but we surely need them to augment our food production and cash- crops supply in a sustainable manner.

–(The author is a freelance writer with an M.Phil in Plant Sciences from Quaid-i-Azam

University)