Feature Stories

Boosting Food with Nuclear

Climate change impacts to the world’s food supplies are of growing concern. As pointed out at the 3rd United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) Scientific Conference in Mexico last year, poor land practices and increased demand have led to land degradation. A problem further exacerbated thanks to more extreme weather patterns which is resulting in ecosystems shifting or dying all together.

Changing precipitation patterns and increased heat have taken their toll on the farming sector, shrinking land supply while simultaneously putting increased pressure on available agricultural resources.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations predicts that climate change will continue to strain our food sector and in particular the access and availability of our water resources, vital to food production.

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Copyright: G Stock Studio

“In an era of accelerated changes unparalleled to any in our past, our ability to provide adequate, safe and nutritious food sustainability and equitability is more relevant than ever,” stated FAO Deputy Director-General Natural Resources, Maria Helena Semedo.

Researchers with the Plant Phenotyping and Imaging Research Center (P2IRC) at the University of Saskatchewan are hoping that nuclear science can unlock the answer to food security by breeding plants that are more resistant to climate stressors and disease.

We know a lot about the parts of crops that you can’t see but the frontier now is the parts of the crops that you can’t see the roots,” said Paul Arnison, President, Botanical Alternatives. “We aren’t just interested in plant imaging but being able to see into the soil. This is place where we feel we can make the greatest gains and where it has been difficult to study in the past.”

Arnison has worked in the biotech industry for more than 35 years and he believes that some of the world’s most pressing problems can be addressed thanks to a research reactor and a neutron beam.

A neutron beam is capable of shining through plants and the dark soils surrounding them. Information on a plant’s structure, performance under drought conditions, water movement and even root structure can be determined. It’s crucial information when addressing a growing demand for food and shifts in weather patterns.

“One of the major problems for crops is predators, insects or fungi that eat or damage the roots of crop plants,” according to Arnison. “As an example, a major limitation for corn is the corn root worm. If you could look at the roots in real time, you could find a better way to deal with the predators,” he says.

A wide suite of plant research possibilities, include a window into the rhizosphere, the region around the roots. A community of organisms lives around the roots and certain microorganisms are highly beneficial and some are a major problem; by seeing through the plant researchers could study the impacts of microorganisms on the surrounding crops.

This multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving is a leap forward, partnerships finding global solutions to food insecurity and it’s all in part thanks to nuclear science.