Saturday, August 21, 2010


Radiation invariably evokes hostile reaction amongst common folks even 65 years after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans to bring World War II to an end. The massive destruction and suffering in these cities of Japan are still fresh in the memories of older generation of population while the younger generation have the visuals easily accessible to them through the Internet. There is a lurking suspicion that food exposed to irradiation would carry harmful radiations that will be hazardous. No matter how much proof is generated establishing the safety of irradiation process, the consumer resistance to accepting irradiated foods is still high, acting as hindrance for universal acceptance of this beautiful technology by the industry. It is against such a background one has to view the daring developments in China during the last 30 years where scientists have been experimenting with nuclear radiation for improving the genetic stock of their food grains for increasing their yield.

"China is conducting experiments to apply nuclear technology to improve the yield of agricultural produce encouraging farmers to cultivate various varieties of irradiated seeds, which involves exposing them to low doses of gamma rays. Some of the Chinese farmers have sown the seeds irradiated by Heilongjiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences (HAAS) and are monitoring the growth of the crop. "I just want to try it. I hope nuclear technology can help me to raise either the output or quality of crops," Li Weiguo says a farmer in Shuqing Village near Shuangcheng City, who had sown the irradiated seeds soybean and corn this summer, expecting new varieties with higher yields. It is the first time the 33-year-old farmer in China's Heilongjiang Province has had seeds irradiated with the help of agricultural experts. The irradiation process involves exposing seeds to low doses of gamma rays from cobalt-60, a radioisotope of cobalt, which causes changes in the seed's genetic makeup, said Xu Dechun, vice director of the institute. It usually took experts about five years to screen out seeds for new varieties with stable genetic characteristics, Xu told Xinhua news agency".

"Compared with the widely used cross-breeding method, which largely depended on opportunity and usually took about eight years to get a stable variety, seed irradiation intervention was far more effective in bringing out the desired characteristics of a certain crop, he said. Xu's team has developed 28 new soybean breeds, almost 20 wheat varieties and a dozen corn varieties. More than seven million hectares of farmland in Heilongjiang have grown such crops, which raised yields by more than 50 million kilograms. China is the world's largest grain producer and consumer. The central and local governments have been supporting the application of nuclear technologies in agricultural development. Huge investments have been made in research programs across the country and almost every province has established atomic energy institutes, Liang Qu, director of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, said at the third Global Forum of Leaders for Agricultural Science and Technology. The FAO and IAEA had continuously promoted the application of nuclear technologies in agriculture since 1950, he said. So far, more than 3,000 new varieties have entered mass production worldwide for commercial purposes. In addition to developing new varieties, irradiation is also used to retard spoilage and increase the shelf life of food".

While changes in gene make up with in a species are not considered very risky, consumer backlash is more towards transgenic crops where external genes are introduced into the natural gene pool of a particular cultivar. Genetic changes are brought about naturally amongst each species by a natural process of evolution but probably it may take long time. Green revolution was achieved through cross breeding using high performance strains which expedited the genetic change to achieve several desired traits. While leadership role of China has to be conceded which was possible because of the nature of government in charge there, the positive results reported by them should persuade others like India to give more priority to application of nuclear technology to agriculture.


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