Growing agriculture through nuclear solutions

15 Aug 2017, 12:00 am
Thuo Njoroge Daniel
Growing agriculture through nuclear solutions

Feature Highlight

Employing the pest sterilization technique, Tanzania's Zanzibar declared itself tsetse-free in 1997.

We live in an age of technological revolutions; and breakthroughs in technology are driving productivity and development outcomes in multiple sectors. Across Africa, technological innovations are being successfully deployed in agriculture.
In Benin Republic, soybean farmers are able to triple their income using the benefits of nuclear irradiation. The implementation of isotopic techniques also makes it easy to regulate the amount of nitrogen in the soil, which is necessary for healthy plant growth.

Close cooperation between farmers and scientists in the West African country has brought about impressive results. Local famers have seen their crop yields triple or quadruple. This is a fantastic development for a country that is highly dependent on soybean exports.

The chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on Science and Technology, Prof. Ajayi Boroffice, argues that the synergy between agriculture and technology can certainly have a positive effect on the economy.

Another prime example, from South Africa, shows how the introduction of nuclear technology literally saved the Western Cape's orange industry, which was once on the brink of extinction. The application of nuclear science helped the local farmers to put an end to an infestation of the false codling moth, which severely damaged the local environment, seriously affecting the citrus industry that employed 10% of South Africa's agricultural labour force.

How it worked: local farmers used the sterile insect technique, which is a form of insect pest control that uses ionizing radiation to sterilize pests that are mass-produced in special rearing facilities. The sterile insects are released systematically from the ground or by air over pest-infested areas, where they mate with wild populations, which subsequently do not produce offsprings. In the few cases when sterilized males and wild females do have an offspring, it is always a completely sterile male.

This technique can suppress and, in some cases, eventually eradicate populations of insect pests. This technique is among the most environmentally-friendly control tactics available, and is usually applied as part of an integrated campaign to control insect populations. Employing this technique, Tanzania's Zanzibar declared itself tsetse-free in 1997.

Food irradiation is a life-saving technology, as it eradicates bacteria and parasites that can cause food-borne diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each year around 600 million people suffer an array of illnesses caused by consuming contaminated food. As estimated by WHO, more than 90 million people fall ill and roughly 130,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in Africa.

Implementation of nuclear technologies in agriculture would be beneficial in Africa. That's why Nigeria, which already has one nuclear science facility able to operate in six different modes, plans to boost the economic and scientific potentials of nuclear technology in the country.

Nigeria is now planning to build a Center for Nuclear Science and Technologies with the help of Russia's nuclear corporation, Rosatom. The cutting edge technology centre will allow Nigeria to start manufacturing isotopes for widespread use in the diagnostics and treatment of oncological diseases as well as irradiation, which will not only increase the availability of nuclear medicine to the country's citizens but also preserve the country's fresh produce.

In Kenya, adequate energy supply would make it possible to address the challenge of post-harvest loss, which makes it difficult to beneficiate the agriculture sector. Hence the need to advance the nuclear agenda to address energy gaps and thus substantially increase productivity in the entire food value chain.

For example, through the provision of affordable sustainable energy, it would be possible to have cereals, legumes and fish dried and treated to reduce moisture content, and thus increase their shelve life. With this, more food would be available during drought.

Conscious of the benefits that nuclear technologies can bring to the wellbeing of their citizens, more emerging African countries are considering broadening their nuclear capacities. Zambia is pushing forward with nuclear science. The country is planning to build a nuclear university as well as install a special radioisotope complex with the help of Russian partners to meet its rising demands in key spheres of social and economic activity.

The use of nuclear technologies is life changing. According to global estimations, some 25-30% of the food harvested in many developing countries is lost as a result of spoilage by microbes and pests. The reduction of spoilage due to infestation and contamination is of the utmost importance, particularly in countries with humid climates.

Thuo Njoroge Daniel is an Energy Expert, Economics & Policy Analysis lecturer at Karatina University School of Business, Kenya. He is also the Engagement Lead for the Extractive Hub in Kenya.

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