Farmers in India have joined hands with scientists to improve soil fertility and increase their production with the help of nuclear techniques

Farmers in India have joined hands with scientists to improve soil fertility and increase agricultural production with the help of nuclear techniques. The scientists at the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University have conducted studies on the soil and water in various regions using nuclear and isotopic techniques. They have integrated their findings with livestock production methods and crop and livestock-based organic farming system.

The collaboration that began in 2013 has helped in increasing the organic carbon content of the soil. Nuclear Asia talks to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Soil Scientist and Plant Nutritionist Mohammad Zaman to know more about the project. Here is the interview –

How can nuclear science boost agricultural productivity?

Nuclear Science offers innovative solutions to farmers to improve agricultural practices. Nuclear and related technologies are used to boost livestock productivity, and to control and prevent spread of trans-boundary animal diseases. Irradiation can be used to induce mutations in plants in order to create new varieties of staple crops, such as rice that have higher yields, greater resilience to climate change and tolerance to environmental stresses. Nuclear techniques are also used in many countries to help farmers make the most of limited water supplies and to optimize fertilizer use, such as in Sudan. The sterile insect technique helps countries combat agricultural pests that could have severe economic and human impact, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly and the tsetse fly.

When did the joint project of IAEA and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN began in India to employ nuclear science for agriculture? Could you elaborate more about the integrated livestock-crop project?

The Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University has been part of this particular IAEA-FAO Coordinated Research Project (CRP) since its start in July 2013. Sustainable integrated crop-livestock systems require special land management practices to boost food production. The use of nuclear and isotopic techniques enables a better understanding of the processes involved in such systems, and facilitate the application of measures focusing on improving soil fertility and quality, the conservation of nutrients and water in crops and soil; and the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

How has been the response of the Indian agriculturist to the new technologies and what has been the results. How do you see the potential of nuclear science in revamping the way India cultivate its land?

The Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University is using nuclear and isotopic techniques to collect precise information for climate-smart agriculture. These include measures to increase crop production, minimize land degradation, improve soil fertility and reduce the negative impacts of climate change by, for example, sequestering (storing) atmospheric carbon and nitrogen.

In the current project, the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University applied nuclear techniques to better understand the complex dynamics between plant nutrients, water and the effects of livestock farming in different locations in the state of Tamil Nadu (Kancheepuram, Trichy, Erode and Madurai). The results obtained to date are impressive:

– Approximately 15 per cent improvement in cow milk production in all four locations.

– The paddy and paddy straw yield in Kancheepuram, Trichy, Erode and Madurai increased in two years by 17 per cent, 125 per cent, 4 per cent and 120 per cent respectively.

– The reproductive performance of dairy cows improved in all four locations by reducing calving interval from 13 to 12.2 months (Kancheepuram), 15 to 12 months (Trichy), 17 to 14 months (Erode) and 14 to 13 months (Madurai).

Has there been similar projects in other countries, especially from Asia?

In Asia, China and Indonesia are part of this ongoing CRP. Other countries include Argentina, Brazil, Kenya, Uganda and Uruguay, who also observed positive results in using integrated crop-livestock systems.

Can nuclear science catch on in the field of agriculture as the common people still have apprehensions regarding it? How do you intend to increase its mass appeal?

Nuclear techniques are used to study agricultural processes in order to improve practices for farmers, and these studies are performed by trained scientists and experts under safe laboratory- and glasshouse conditions. The end-product or improved practice resulting from these studies does not contain any radiation. For example, nuclear techniques can determine the amount of water and fertilizer a crop needs in order to thrive, and this allows farmers to set up tailored drip-irrigation systems to maximize scarce resources. No radioactivity is passed on to the soil, or crop, as a result of this. Similarly, there is no residual radiation left in a plant after mutation induction through irradiation, so the final product is safe for consumption.