"We will suffer from water and food crises if we do not adapt our agricultural practices," said Shyful Azizi Abdul Rahman, senior research officer at the Malaysian Nuclear Agency, to a room packed with delegates from around the world. "Rice is our major crop and source of income."
Countries in Asia, which produces 90% of the world's rice, have seen fluctuating yields in recent years due to rising temperatures that bring diseases and pests, extreme floods and drought, and a rise in sea levels that leads to increased soil salinity in coastal areas.
"Nuclear techniques in plant mutation breeding, soil and water management and crop nutrition are providing solutions to challenges of both food security and climate change - both important Sustainable Development Goals," said Najat Mokhtar, Director of the Division of Asia and the Pacific at the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation.
In the past years, the IAEA and FAO have been helping scientists use nuclear and isotopic techniques to develop climate-smart agricultural practices. By tracking water in soil, for example, scientists in Malaysia have helped farmers improve water management.
"With the new practices, we are protecting our soil, our water and our rice," Abdul Rahman said, adding that Malaysia's next step will be to use fertilizer more efficiently. Nuclear techniques can also help quantify the amount of nutrients that crops need.
In the Philippines, isotopic techniques unveiled that splitting the application of fertilizer in different time periods saved rice farmers more than USD 4 million per season and increased yields by almost 50%. Based on water data gathered using isotopic techniques, they also managed to save 35% of the water used for irrigation. "Thanks to isotope tracer techniques, we have reformulated fertilizer and water use," said Roland Rallos, science research specialist at the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute.
Different condition, different rice
Plant mutation breeding techniques help scientists develop rice varieties that can resist diverse conditions. The process involves irradiating seeds to create new, improved varieties of rice that are tolerant to drought, salinity or floods, for example.
In 2016, Viet Nam's Mekong River was severely affected by drought and salinity. "With regards to climate change, we are one of the most affected countries," said Khanh Nguyen Trong, Director of the Field Crops Research Institute. "Our priority now is to be able to respond to food and agricultural threats in the future."
Since 2012, applying plant mutation breeding techniques, scientists have developed seven rice mutant varieties that produce high yield and are tolerant to draught. "More than 300 000 farmers are profiting from the new varieties, developed to cope with climate change," Nguyen Trong said.
Following his presentation, Totti Tjiptosumirat, Head of the Center for Isotopes and Radiation Application at Indonesia's National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN), talked about the challenge Indonesia is facing: a rising demand for food thanks to population growth and higher incomes, coupled with the loss of arable land.
Thanks to the technical support of the IAEA and FAO, BATAN has released 22 mutant rice varieties, which have so far helped over 800 000 farmers and produced enough food for 20 million people.
"Global food demand will increase by 60% in 2050," said Qu Liang, Director the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. "And where does food come from Agriculture. More than two thirds of the world's hunger is happening in Asia and the Pacific, which is why we are all committed to providing an optimal solution to enhancing production in the face of climate change, both regionally and globally."
The support has been delivered under the IAEA technical cooperation programme.